Voting at Ordinary Elections

Orders of the Day — Government of Wales Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:45 pm on 22nd July 1998.

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Lords amendment: No. 3, in page 2, line 42, leave out from ("have") to end of line 9 on page 3 and insert ("one vote (referred to in this Act as a constituency vote).(2) The constituency vote is to be given for a candidate to be the Assembly member for the Assembly constituency.(3) There shall also be calculated the number of additional member votes for each registered political party which has submitted a list of candidates to be Assembly members for the Assembly electoral region in which the Assembly constituency is included.(3A) The number of additional member votes for each party shall be the same as the number of constituency votes for the candidate of the party in that constituency.")

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

I beg to move, That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 5 to 12, 14 to 16, 18 and 20, each with Government motion to disagree, No. 21, amendment (a) thereto and No. 22, with Government motion to disagree.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

I believe that it is the mood of the House to move quickly on these matters—

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

Fine. In that case, it appears that we have a considerable amount of time in which to develop interesting and persuasive arguments. I look forward to a lengthy exchange on the amendments.

The amendments, which were introduced in the other place to change the additional member system from a two-vote ballot to a single-vote ballot, are fundamentally flawed. They are undemocratic and discriminatory. I believe that the House has a moral obligation to overturn the amendments and to restore unfettered democratic choice to the Welsh electorate.

I remind the House that the White Paper "A Voice for Wales" spelled out clearly that the electoral arrangements for the Assembly would be based on electors having two votes. The additional member system, as proposed for the Assembly by the Government—and endorsed by the electorate in the referendum—would give voters two votes. It is worth reminding the House that, before the election, there was broadly based agreement that that form of electoral system was necessary for the Assembly. Agreement was sufficiently broadly based so that all Members of Parliament elected at the last election to represent Welsh constituencies subscribed to it in their national manifestos.

At its conference in March 1997, the Labour party unanimously agreed that that was the system we wanted. I had many discussions with Alex Carlile, the former Liberal Democrat leader in Wales, and I know that he broadly accepted the proposal, as did the right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) and his party. I acknowledge that there were some differences, and that some amendments were required, but there was broadly based consensus that the additional member system was necessary in order to introduce the form of plurality into the Welsh Assembly that that new democratic institution demanded.

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There was broadly based agreement in 1997, and the people of Wales obviously accepted that view at the general election, because they voted to elect in each of the 40 Welsh constituencies Members of Parliament whose national manifestos supported the additional member system. I am sure that the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) does not want to re-run the referendum, even at this late stage. However, those proposals were put before the people of Wales in that referendum of 18 September last year, and they endorsed them. The House should consider that point very carefully.

The Government propose that electors should have two votes. The first would be for the constituency Member, elected by the first-past-the-post system under the traditional method. The second would be for a party list or independent candidate—that is particularly important in rural Wales; I know that Conservative Members do not understand the politics of rural Wales, so I urge them to reflect carefully on this point—

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

I am being uncharacteristically generous to the hon. Gentleman.

The second vote would be for a party list or independent candidate, and would determine the four additional Members for the voter's electoral region. Under our proposals, voters would be given the right to choose whom they vote for in both the constituency and the electoral region.

It is quite possible that voters would take two separate decisions: they might decide to support one candidate in the constituency section and a party in the regional list. That is common practice in Wales. Indeed, at the last election, I venture to suggest that there was a great deal of tactical voting. The people of Wales regard that as a great success, because they got rid of all Conservative Members of Parliament for Wales. I can understand why the Conservative party is loth to see the development of any electoral system that empowers people to get rid of Conservative candidates, but that is the reality of politics in Wales.

The other place has chosen to deny that choice to the people of Wales, and that issue is at the heart of our debate. The amendments introduced there allow voters one vote only—they deny the opportunity for a second vote—for the constituency ballot. Under those arrangements, a voter wishing to express a choice for the regional candidates can vote only for a constituency candidate from a party that has also put forward a party list.

I shall give an example from my constituency. A vote for the Conservative candidate in Caerphilly—a rare prospect, one might imagine, but it is nevertheless technically possible—would register automatically as a vote for the Conservative party list for the whole south Wales east electoral region. I am prepared to acknowledge that some of my constituents might choose to vote Conservative as an alternative to voting for the Labour candidate—they may be instinctively inclined to support Labour but have some difficulty supporting the Labour candidate in Caerphilly.

However, under those circumstances, it would be wrong to assume that they would always vote Conservative, and to tot up those votes for the Conservative party. However, that is precisely the effect of the amendment that the House of Lords invites us to accept. The voter would not have the option to vote for the list of a different party.

The consequence of the single vote system is that the four additional Members elected from each of the five regions will be elected indirectly. That makes a total of 20 indirectly elected Assembly Members from a total of only 60. Under the proposals endorsed by the electorate in the referendum, the additional Members would each receive a separate mandate from electors choosing to support their party.

The question arises under the Lords amendments: to whom would those Members be accountable? Would they be accountable to the electorate, or to the constituency Members in their regions for whom the votes were cast directly? If the hon. Member for West Dorset reflects on that point, he will see that that is precisely the logic behind the House of Lords suggestion.

The provisions inserted in the other place are discriminatory. They discriminate against small parties. That may concern the Conservative party, because, according to the latest evidence, it is the smallest party in Wales. Conservative Members should reflect carefully on the prospect of suffering more self-inflicted damage. The provisions also discriminate against independent candidates—that point concerns me, as I am sure that the Conservative party can look after itself—and against elector choice.

For smaller parties, which are unlikely to win any constituency seats, the best chance of winning seats is through the electoral region. Under these arrangements, to have any chance of winning additional member seats in a region, a party would have to put forward candidates in all constituencies within that region. That is manifestly unfair in the case of parties such as the Green party. It would mean putting up between seven and nine constituency candidates per region, which would be a tremendous strain on the finances and resources of those small parties.

Why should smaller parties be obliged to overreach themselves and compete in the most unfavourable circumstances? Having looked closely at the arguments made in the other place, I can conclude only that it is simply because the Conservatives have a fertile imagination.

In our previous debates, and in the other place, Conservative Front Benchers sought to suggest that the electoral system proposed by the Government would distinguish between the status of Members voted for at the constituency level and those from the list. That will not be the case. However, the amendments made by the other place offer the clearest indication that the official Opposition want to have second-class Members of the Assembly. That is unacceptable to the Government.

The Conservative spokesman in the other place made much of the possibility of collusion by political parties—even though the House and the other place have put it on record that the parties will not entertain any such suggestion. I give the hon. Member for West Dorset an assurance that there will be no collusion by my party or by any persons standing as Labour party candidates.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to reflect on the fact that the Labour party made a momentous decision in moving away from a system that had served us well, guaranteed us a majority and denied the Conservative party a majority in Wales every since the secret ballot was introduced in the last century. It was a momentous decision to move to a system that guaranteed fairer representation for all political parties in Wales.

It is a travesty of politics in Wales to suggest that, having moved from that position, the Labour party would seek deliberately to collude or enter into underhanded arrangements that would deny the effect of our proposed change. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect on that point. The amendments made by the Lords offer the clearest indication that the official Opposition want to create suspicion.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Opposition Spokesperson (Constitutional Affairs, Scotland and Wales)

How does the Secretary of State define "collusion"? For the sake of clarity, when he says that the Labour party will not collude, to what is he referring specifically?

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

I am happy to explain, because this was the subject of some discussion in the House of Lords. The hon. Gentleman's predecessor, the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), also raised the issue, and I gave him a similar assurance.

For example, it was suggested that the Labour party would put up candidates in the south Wales east region to contest all the constituencies quite properly on a first-past-the-post basis, but would not enter any candidates for the additional member seats, putting forward instead candidates standing in the name of the Co-operative party. The Co-operative party is part of the Labour party. The suggestion is that we would then encourage Labour voters not to vote for the Labour candidate—there would not be one—but to vote for the Co-operative party candidate and that, after the election, the Co-operative party candidate would form an immediate one-party alliance with the Labour party.

It has been suggested that we would not put forward candidates in mid and west Wales, for example, but would choose individuals who were known to be Labour party supporters, and that the party machine would support them as independent candidates. Immediately after the election of the Assembly, those independent candidates would automatically take the whip of the Labour party.

Such collusion is technically possible, which is why I want to assure the House that, as far as I am concerned—as Secretary of State for Wales, I have some influence in these matters—there will be no such collusion when we fight the election.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Opposition Spokesperson (Constitutional Affairs, Scotland and Wales)

Although I accept the Secretary of State's assurance—I give the same assurance on behalf of the Conservative party—we cannot speak for other parties. The Secretary of State admits that collusion is possible. Does he not therefore think that there should be a provision in the Bill to prevent such activity?

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

That may be so, but the proposal that we are discussing strikes at the very heart of the democratic arrangements. It does not achieve the objective that the Opposition seek to achieve, but strikes out the principle of proportionality in the electoral system. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's assurance that there will be no collusion by the Conservative party, but I must tell him in a spirit of friendship that I would not mind if the Conservative party did collude, because, according to the latest information available, even with collusion the Conservatives would be unlikely to win many seats in the Welsh Assembly.

The Conservatives are not really afraid of the possibility of collusion—that is a smokescreen; their real fear is that there is such a broad-based consensus in Wales that people will choose to vote for, dare I say it, a Liberal Democrat candidate in Brecon and Radnor if they feel that that vote is most likely to succeed in getting rid of the Conservatives.

In exactly the same way, it is clear that, in the 1997 election, a range of people who were broadly left of centre in Monmouth, Vale of Glamorgan or Vale of Clwyd were prepared to support the Labour candidate, because they thought that that was the best way to guarantee getting rid of what they considered to be a discredited and unacceptable Conservative party candidate. They wanted a Tory-free Wales, and to set Wales on the path of creating a new democracy.

That actually happened. We cannot quantify it, because I can give no direct evidence to the Opposition, but I know from my experience of canvassing in Brecon and Radnor—Montgomery was not top of the Labour party's hit list at the last election—where I spent many happy days trying to persuade people to vote Labour, that many people told me that the only way to get rid of the dreadful, rotten, corrupt, incompetent and feckless Conservative Government was to vote for the Liberal Democrat candidate, even though they did not admire his personal qualities.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Opposition Spokesperson (Constitutional Affairs, Scotland and Wales)

I wonder whether the Secretary of State has understood what he has just said. If the amendment were accepted and people were to follow the tactic that he describes, that would do worse damage to the Tory cause than the system that he proposes.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

That intervention shows how difficult the Conservative party finds it to come into touch with the reality of modern politics. I do not regard the electoral system as something that should be constructed in order to advance the interests of my political party. Politics in Wales has moved on from that.

The hon. Gentleman clearly cannot understand that I want a system that ensures that the 20 per cent. of people in Wales who voted Conservative at the last election are properly represented in the Assembly if they choose to vote Conservative again. I do not want them to vote Conservative, and will do all I can by argument and campaigning to prevent them from doing so, but if they choose to vote for the Conservative party, they should be represented in the Assembly.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Opposition Spokesperson (Constitutional Affairs, Scotland and Wales)

As Secretary of State, the right hon. Gentleman owes it to the House to maintain some intellectual integrity in this argument. Did he not argue that the Conservative party was supporting the amendment not because we were concerned about alter ego parties but because we were trying to preserve ourselves against the circumstances that he described? He should have the grace to admit that that argument is wholly fallacious, because the amendment makes our position under those circumstances worse, and we must therefore have a different motive—genuinely to prevent the problem of alter ego parties.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

I do not accept that. I am trying to save the Conservative party from itself. The hon. Gentleman must understand that these moments of generosity are few and far between, so I urge the Conservatives

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office 6:15 pm, 22nd July 1998

Will the hon. Gentleman sit down? He has now been in the House long enough to know that, when someone is responding to an intervention, it is courteous and sensible to allow that intervention to be dealt with before making another. If he will contain himself for a moment, I shall finish dealing with the previous intervention.

This is a serious matter. We are trying to construct a new form of inclusive democracy in Wales, and the Conservative party seeks to strike at the heart of the electoral arrangements that we propose.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Conservative, Beaconsfield

Does the Secretary of State agree that the alternative way of viewing the matter is that he is concerned for the time when the worm turns? When the worm turns, his party might be at a disadvantage in Wales.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

It is quite clear that I am wasting my time. Despite my best efforts and those of all political parties in Wales, the Conservatives refuse to be brought into touch with the reality of modern politics. I am not concerned about the time, in five, 10 or 15 years, when the electoral cycle has moved on and the Labour party has 40 seats rather than the current 34. When that happens, we shall have to grin and bear it, with fortitude and good humour.

I know that the electoral cycle swings. Hon. Members must now recognise that we have a broad-based consensus. The last election was fought on that basis, as was the referendum—

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

The hon. Gentleman should contain himself, because it is possible to strain my tolerance and good humour. If anybody can do so, it is the hon. Gentleman.

As I was saying, we have a broad-based consensus. The House of Commons passed the Bill with a record majority of 220. It was accepted in Committee, and there were never any questions about it, but we are now faced with the prospect of the House of Lords striking out a measure that is at the heart of the creation of the Welsh Assembly.

I shall give way to the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), but, as the House wants to listen to the views of other hon. Members, I should like to make some progress thereafter.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the consensus cannot be judged to last for ever. The undertaking that he has so willingly given that none of the parties present will indulge in so-called "split ticket voting" cannot be held as a guarantee for ever. We are simply trying to put in place processes that will prevent that once the electoral cycle has moved on. If the right hon. Gentleman does not like the measures that we propose, should he not think of other more appropriate measures to put in the Bill?

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

I have thought of other more appropriate measures. They were put in my party's manifesto at the last election, and we won 34 out of 40 parliamentary seats in Wales. The other parties with similar proposals also won the confidence of the majority of the people of Wales.

The Conservative party, which was the only one trying to defend the status quo—it was stuck in a time warp, and was not prepared to move on to a new form of inclusive, rational, sane, democratic politics—paid the price. The people endorsed our proposals again in the referendum, and this House has endorsed them. What we are now seeing is Conservative Front-Bench Members trying to justify a measure that was inserted against their better judgment in the House of Lords. I want to move on now, if I may.

The Lords amendments are driven by party self-interest. The last thing that the official Opposition want is the people of Wales to be able fully to exercise their democratic rights—they fully realise the difficulties that befell them at the general election. I would not dispute the intelligence of the United Kingdom electorate, and we should leave it to them, not to a diktat from the Conservative party, to decide who they want to represent them in the Assembly.

The changes would discriminate against independent candidates by denying them the opportunity to stand in an electoral region, and by undermining their chances in individual constituencies. The single vote system would mean that anyone who voted in a constituency for an independent candidate would not register a vote in the indirect election of the additional members.

How many voters who might vote for an independent in their constituency would do so when they realised that they would disfranchise themselves in the regional election? Very few, which is where the Lords amendment would discriminate so directly and blatantly against independent candidates. It is important in politics, certainly in rural Wales, that individual candidates should be able to come forward.

I do not understand why the Conservative party wants to impose such draconian restrictions on small parties such as the Green party and on the independents, especially when the Conservative party faces the prospect of becoming an even smaller party. I do not understand why voters should not be able to vote for one party in a constituency and for the list of another party in the electoral region. That is the heart of the arrangements we propose. Ours is a democracy of long standing, and we have a mature electorate who are well able to take responsible decisions for themselves.

Lords amendment No. 21 greatly extends the reference in respect of the party list to be used in the event of a vacancy in a party list seat. It is otiose. The original drafting made it perfectly clear which was the relevant list, and did so quite succinctly. The Government amendment to Lords amendment No. 21 will restore the clarity of the provision. I urge the House to overturn these amendments and to agree to the Government amendment to Lords amendment No. 21.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Opposition Spokesperson (Constitutional Affairs, Scotland and Wales)

It is extraordinary that the Secretary of State should engage in political knockabout in a discussion of a serious constitutional issue. I do not say that it is the biggest constitutional issue that has ever hit the face of the earth, but it is significant and he should take the argument seriously.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), who briefly graced us with his presence, presumably found the Secretary of State' s remarks too difficult to swallow and left. During proceedings on the Registration of Political Parties Bill, the Under-Secretary was good enough frequently to acknowledge the seriousness of the question of alter ego parties—what the Secretary of State calls collusion. Although the Under-Secretary found it difficult to accept amendments because they would not have been effective against the problem, he made it clear that he hoped that the Government would seek measures to prevent such abuse.

We have before us a clear case. We did not invent the idea of introducing the alternative member system to the Welsh Assembly—the Government did that. Nor does the Lords amendment, despite the Secretary of State's amusing efforts to make it seem so, in any way militate against the integrity of that system. On the contrary, it retains all the ability for top-up to occur, one way or another, to the advantage of whatever party it might be.

Photo of Mr Win Griffiths Mr Win Griffiths Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Welsh Office

There has been an additional member system in Germany for many years. Can the hon. Gentleman cite one example, or even a handful, of where such a thing has happened in the German body politic? I cannot think of any.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Opposition Spokesperson (Constitutional Affairs, Scotland and Wales)

That is an interesting point which has been much discussed. So far as we are aware, there are no examples at national level, in Germany or elsewhere, of parties engaging in alter ego activities. At lander level, there have been some such suggestions and attempts, although I understand that none were brought to fruition. The Secretary of State and the Minister are relying on the proposition that the same discipline will apply in Wales. We do not say that it may not apply; it may, but there is no reason on earth not to have an amendment or a rule preventing that occurrence.

The Secretary of State and the Minister presumably agree with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department that this is a serious problem which needs tackling. [Interruption.] If the Secretary of State is saying from a sedentary position that the Lords amendment has other disadvantages which outweigh its advantage of removing the alter ego party problem, it would have been better if he had couched his speech in such terms. It would then have been intellectually respectable and we could have come to the arguments about whether the Lords amendment has other disadvantages which outweigh its advantage.

If the Secretary of State had thought through the issue and come to such a conclusion, he should have brought forward alternative methods, as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) said when he was taxing the Secretary of State's patience from the Back Benches. Alternative methods were discussed in the other place, such as rules about having to be represented in both parts of the voting. Those were not pressed, but it is entirely possible for the Secretary of State to come back with a better version of a rule to prevent alter ego party activities.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

Yes, of course, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman now understands this matter does not tax us greatly. If there is a responsibility on anyone, it is on the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to introduce a proposition to deal with the problem. They have not done that. The responsibility is theirs, if they believe that the Bill needs improvement. We do not.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Opposition Spokesperson (Constitutional Affairs, Scotland and Wales)

Our noble Friends in the other place have introduced exactly such a proposition to solve that problem. To move to the Secretary of State's serious arguments, he claims that it has other disadvantages. [Interruption.] Well, let us go through what those other huge, serious problems are meant to be.

The Secretary of State told us that the Lords amendment was flawed, undemocratic and discriminatory. The arguments that he put forward boiled down to one thing: he claimed that, although the single vote proposition would cure the alter ego problem, it would cause difficulties for smaller parties. Let us examine what he means by that proposition.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Opposition Spokesperson (Constitutional Affairs, Scotland and Wales)

I do not think that the Secretary of State said any more than that; he simply said it several different ways.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

So that there is no misunderstanding, I made it absolutely clear that the purpose of the additional member system is to create a new inclusive politics with parties receiving representation in accordance with the percentage of the vote that they receive from the electorate.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Opposition Spokesperson (Constitutional Affairs, Scotland and Wales)

I fear that I have overrated the Secretary of State. I had thought that he was engaging in political knockabout because he well understood the point and was merely having fun at our expense, but it appears that he is genuinely under a misapprehension. Let me explain; the single vote proposition maintains entirely the integrity of the inclusive politics to which he is so attached.

Photo of Mr Ieuan Wyn Jones Mr Ieuan Wyn Jones Plaid Cymru, Ynys Môn

The hon. Gentleman represents the small party in Wales.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Opposition Spokesperson (Constitutional Affairs, Scotland and Wales)

I am leaving aside the question of the smaller parties, but I shall return to it.

The single vote proposition leaves entirely intact the proposition that a party that receives N per cent. of the vote will receive N per cent. of the representation, barring the question of the divisors. It would make no change in that, so we are left with the Secretary of State's one serious point: does the Lords amendment in any way seriously militate against smaller parties?

I shall distinguish between two kinds of smaller party, although the Secretary of State did not do so clearly until the end of his remarks. On the one hand, there are parties that are small because they have small popular appeal in Wales, or in a region of Wales, and do not have much money. On the other, there are genuine Independents, or the party sole—a person who wants to stand in a particular constituency and does not have a party behind him.

The Secretary of State succeeded in muddling the two cases virtually entirely, but let me try to disentangle them. He alluded to the Green party, but I shall start with the Conservative party, which he says is a smaller party. I assure him that rules which meant that the Conservative party had to put up candidates in all seats would pose us no problem. We are quite up to that job. I am grateful to him for his concern for us, but we can look after ourselves. I venture that every other party represented in the House is in a similar position, so there is no question of discrimination against major political parties in Wales or elsewhere.

What are we asking of the Green party in the single vote proposition? We are asking it to risk its deposit in a number of seats to benefit from the top-up, which occurs through the single vote mechanism. The only difference between the Lords amendment and the Bill is that Green party deposits would be put at risk. It has regularly run candidates who clearly stood in the greatest possible danger of losing their deposits, but that did not stop them. I do not think that the Green party would have the slightest difficulty in putting up candidates, but, if the Secretary of State thinks that a serious problem exists, it falls to him to table an amendment to reduce the amount of the deposit. That would be a legitimate tactic, and it would be a conclusive answer to his argument. In fact, the right hon. Gentleman's argument has only a monetary aspect—nothing else that he has said carries the slightest credence—and, if he is worried about money, he can deal with that in a way that we would doubtless accept.

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Let us now turn to the other part of the argument. The Secretary of State managed to confuse it with something else, but it is the beginning of a shred of a serious argument against the single-vote amendment—the only one that I have heard so far. I refer to the question of an Independent who wishes to stand for a particular seat. The Secretary of State said, or at least tried to say, that the amendment posed a problem for such an Independent. He seemed to be arguing that voters who were really Labour voters—to be generous, as he would say—but who happened to like Mr. X, an Independent, would be disinclined to vote for Mr. X, knowing that their vote, as a Labour vote, would not be added to the total number of Labour votes in terms of the additional member list and that they would not have expressed their preference for the Labour party to have a large proportion of the total number of votes in the Assembly. I suppose that the Secretary of State was trying to say that people would be more inclined to vote for the Labour candidate, and that would be unfair on the Independent candidate.

It is uncharacteristically generous—or perhaps I should be more generous myself, and say that it is characteristically generous—of the Secretary of State to be so concerned about Independents, who, in general, would militate against the Labour party's success in Wales. I must add, however, that, if an Independent stood any serious chance of winning a seat, it is very unlikely that people would refuse to support him for tactical reasons, simply to ensure that their vote—which, necessarily, would constitute only a small part of the total—was registered in the additional member list for the party of their choice. The Secretary of State's argument is extraordinarily tenuous.

This, I think, is the structure of that argument: is the slight disadvantage accruing to the Independent member enough, in the view of any reasonable person, to outweigh the huge advantage recognised by his Home Office colleague of preventing for all time the alter ego party problem, which could distort the result absolutely?

Mr. Öpik:

The hon. Gentleman has ignored one of the key reasons why the Liberal Democrats supported the change: proportional representation. Will he confirm that one of the factors that simply do not matter to the Tories is the introduction of proportional representation as an electoral system, and that he and his party do not recognise the importance of the pluralism that proportional representation will necessarily introduce in Wales?

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Opposition Spokesperson (Constitutional Affairs, Scotland and Wales)

The hon. Gentleman, who is a reasonable person, must have misunderstood the way in which the amendment is intended to work. Let me explain slowly, in the genuine hope that I can persuade the hon. Gentleman that he is under a misapprehension.

Mr. Öpik:

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Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Opposition Spokesperson (Constitutional Affairs, Scotland and Wales)

May I explain? Then I will give way again.

In the single-vote system proposed in the amendment, those who vote for a candidate who is or is not successful—in other words, all who vote for all candidates in all constituencies—add to the total of votes for their party. Thus, eventually, there will be a system of proportional representation through the additional member list, as intended by the Government and by my party, which will not be compromised by the amendment.

Mr. Öpik:

To save the hon. Gentleman any more bother, let me say that I am perfectly aware of what his proposal seeks to do. Does he not understand, however, that the system he proposes is not a system of proportional representation? As many hon. Members have pointed out, it will be skewed by the preference for individual candidates, unrelated to their political parties. Does the hon. Gentleman not understand that the system he is proposing depends less on party preference than on other factors that will hopelessly skew the proportional-representation outcome that every other hon. Member wants?

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Opposition Spokesperson (Constitutional Affairs, Scotland and Wales)

I did the hon. Gentleman an injustice. I understand his argument now. He is saying that the amendment would distort the proportions that would otherwise obtain. His argument is an elaboration, or indeed a stronger version, of the Secretary of State's argument. Perhaps he should swap places with the Secretary of State in order to present it properly.

The hon. Gentleman's argument is that the proportions would be distorted, because preferences for particular candidates in particular seats would enter into the equation of apparent preferences for a particular party—his or ours—and that would not be a fair representation of people's party preferences. That might obtain to a slight extent, but I think the hon. Gentleman would accept that all the evidence so far from psephologists who have studied elections not only in this country, but in other countries that have strongly established party systems, suggests that very few people vote for candidates rather than for the party of their choice—except in the case of tactical voting, which the amendment and the additional member system would remove.

Although valid, unlike most of the Secretary of State's arguments, the hon. Gentleman's suggestion would have a minuscule effect. We return to this question: would that effect be greater or less than what the hon. Gentleman considers to be an academic proposition by us—the prevention of alter ego parties?

The Secretary of State says that, because the major political parties have promised that they will not run alter ego candidates, all is well. He suggests that we should go happily to bed, and not trouble the House further with tedious arguments that keep him from his important business of mismanaging Welsh affairs. It is very likely that he is right. We have yet to hear a final statement from the leader of one of the major political parties, but I gathered from an earlier exchange of nods that we would hear such a statement tonight. Indeed, it may already have been made; I may not have heard it.

Photo of Mr Dafydd Wigley Mr Dafydd Wigley Leader and Party President, Plaid Cymru

The hon. Gentleman cast the same slur in an earlier debate. As he has heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), there is no basis for that slur. There is no reason to expect that we would fiddle the electoral system, any more than the hon. Gentleman's party would.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Opposition Spokesperson (Constitutional Affairs, Scotland and Wales)

I am delighted to hear that statement, and I fully believe it. The current position is excellent: the major parties have promised not to take such action. However, will that be true in all circumstances and at all times? We are legislating for a constitution and an electoral system, and the Secretary of State's colleagues in the Home Office have admitted that, should such a problem arise at a time when it mattered, it would matter a great deal. It could distort the whole result of an election.

Can such circumstances be imagined? I regret to say this—the right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) will probably think me a cad—but I am trying to tell what I believe to be the truth. It is not intended as any sort of slur on his or his party's honour.

If I were the right hon. Gentleman, and if I believed in Welsh independence as sincerely and passionately as I think he does, and if there came a time—not at the next election, but, judging by what has happened in Scotland and the way in which Labour is proceeding, such a time may come—when the right hon. Gentleman's party stood a chance of gaining an overall majority, I might be inclined to use such a tactic just once. I do not say that the right hon. Gentleman would be inclined to use it ever again.

Photo of Mr Dafydd Wigley Mr Dafydd Wigley Leader and Party President, Plaid Cymru

The hon. Gentleman might; we would not.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Opposition Spokesperson (Constitutional Affairs, Scotland and Wales)

I am delighted at that as well. However, it is not good law—

Photo of Mr Ieuan Wyn Jones Mr Ieuan Wyn Jones Plaid Cymru, Ynys Môn

Will the hon. Gentleman stop digging a hole for himself? He is casting aspersions that are entirely baseless, for which there is not a shred of evidence. I ask him to withdraw them.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Opposition Spokesperson (Constitutional Affairs, Scotland and Wales)

The hon. Gentleman misunderstands me. I have considerable respect for him, for his party and for the sincerity with which his party holds its views. The fact is, however, that there could come a time when the balance was so delicate that there was a possibility of achieving a long-held desire. In such circumstances, it makes sense to legislate to stop that possibility.

I concede that, if the amendment gave rise to serious difficulties—if the Secretary of State, unaided by the Liberal Democrats, had been able to produce a serious argument—that remote possibility might not be worth pursuing; but the fact is that the amendment has no serious disadvantages. There are slight disadvantages associated with Independents, and there is a slight possibility of distortion in regard to proportionality, but those are not serious problems. The serious point is that there is a slight risk of a devastating disaster, which ought to be legislated for.

Photo of Mr Rhodri Morgan Mr Rhodri Morgan Labour, Cardiff West

In spite of the pseudo-cerebral meanderings of the Opposition spokesman in his worst, or perhaps best, Reith lecturer manqué mode, it is clear that the Tories motive for tabling this amendment is based on their fear of finishing fourth in the Welsh Assembly elections. Despite the protestations of the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), that is what the amendment is all about.

The Tories know from bitter experience and from all the latest opinion poll evidence that they have not recovered from their below 20 per cent. performance in the election last May. They also know that if the people of Wales are faced with the prospect of voting, not for an individual, but for a party, those who split their votes are more likely to vote for other parties and not for the Conservative party. That is the naked truth, despite the hon. Gentleman's protestations that this is a great constitutional exercise to help to clean up politics in 30 or 40 years' time, because of the possibility of parties subdividing themselves to take advantage of the two-vote system.

Will the Tory party ever get away from the problem that they have with the people of Wales, which causes this dilemma? Their proposition is that a Conservative candidate may get 30 per cent., 40 per cent. or 50 per cent. of the vote, depending on the constituency, but in the second vote the Conservative party will do less well than the individual Conservative candidate. The hon. Gentleman is asking us to believe that he thinks that the Conservative party in Clwyd, North-West is less popular than Rod Richards. That is an extraordinary proposition, but that is the basis of the Conservatives' thought processes.

The Conservative party is still unable to come to terms with the decision made by the people of Wales. There may be split ticket voting: people may vote for a Labour, Liberal Democrat or Plaid Cymru candidate, but will vote for another party with their second vote to have another bite of the cherry. It is human nature that 5 or 10 per cent. of the electorate will think that that is the wise thing to do. Liberal Democrat, Plaid Cymru and Labour votes may be interchangeable, but they will not leak out to the Conservatives.

Photo of Mr Rhodri Morgan Mr Rhodri Morgan Labour, Cardiff West

I shall give way in a second.

Conservative voters, if they are of the same mind as split ticket voters, will vote for a Conservative Member of the Welsh Assembly but may vote for another party with their second vote. The Conservatives lose on the leaking out, but they do not gain anything on the leaking in, because they refuse to come to terms with devolution. The three parties that are in favour of devolution have the right body language for the Welsh Assembly, but the Conservative party is still playing devolution hokey-cokey: put the right leg in, take the right leg out, put the right leg in and shake it all about.

The Conservatives will not overcome this problem. The votes of the other three parties may be interchangeable for the 5 or 10 per cent. who split their votes, but the Conservative party will not gain because it is not seen as playing the game and is not positive about devolution. If it accepted devolution, it would not lose when people vote for a Member of the Welsh Assembly from one party, but vote for another party on the second vote.

I shall now give way to my hon. Friend, who is an expert on the hokey-cokey.

Photo of Mr Allan Rogers Mr Allan Rogers Labour, Rhondda

I would rather leave that to my hon. Friend, who is more skilled in verbosity. He talks about the interchangeability of votes. The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), realised a couple of weeks ago that it is possible that more than 50 per cent. of the people in Wales are against the Welsh Assembly, and, although 50 per cent. of the votes may be interchangeable between the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and Labour, the only Unionist party standing will be the Conservative party. The Labour party must wake up to that fact.

Photo of Mr Rhodri Morgan Mr Rhodri Morgan Labour, Cardiff West

That may be to the Conservative party's advantage, but opinion poll evidence suggests that its position is now worse than it was last May when it got only about 19.5 per cent. of the vote. Its Unionist stance has not done its prospects in the vote next May any good. Everything may change by next May, but the problem is that the Conservative vote in Wales, such as it is, is soft and may leak out on the second vote. Conservatives know that they will not gain from the split ticket voting of voters of the other three parties. That is the motivation behind the absurd position that they are presenting. It is not a fear of parties subdividing, but of finishing fourth in the elections next May.

Photo of Mr Richard Livsey Mr Richard Livsey Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire 6:45 pm, 22nd July 1998

The Bill proposes a two-vote additional member system, which was contained in the White Paper. It was clear in the referendum last year that every voter in Wales, especially those who voted yes, understood that. The Liberal Democrats would prefer the use of the single transferable vote system. If the official Opposition were proposing an amendment that included the single transferable vote, we would have a different view of what they are up to.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Opposition Spokesperson (Constitutional Affairs, Scotland and Wales)

Given the great consistency shown by the hon. Gentleman's party on the single transferable vote issue, why did his party in the House of Lords vote against this proposal when it was considered in the other place?

Photo of Mr Richard Livsey Mr Richard Livsey Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

Our approach was based on realism. It was recognised that we must get the Bill through. The element of proportionality contained in the Bill is a seismic move forward, and the amendment would unstitch that. We accept that the additional member system proposed by the Government is a vast improvement on the first-past-the-post system. It is a more proportional electoral system, and it is one of the features that we support. It will ensure that representation bears more resemblance to the proportions of votes cast, and it will be fairer to all parties. As has been said several times, that is part of the new politics, and we welcome that.

The two-vote additional member system has the advantage of allowing voters to express their preferences for individual candidates in the constituencies and for parties on the lists. That clearly increases voter choice, and allows a vote to be cast for an individual from a different party to the list vote. It allows local, effective candidates to be rewarded above party preferences, with party preferences being re-established in the list vote.

The two-vote system also makes it more likely that an independent candidate can be elected for a region. The Conservative amendments would remove the provision for independent candidates to stand in the regions. That is undemocratic, and the Bill should not exclude the possibility of independent candidates coming forward. In my constituency in 1983, I was opposed by a rural revivalist, Richard Booth, who is a well-known local bookseller in Hay-on-Wye. Does the Conservative party really want to snuff out such individualism and such colour in our political system?

Following the election, we want a review of the electoral system to be used for the Assembly. The Secretary of State agreed to such a review with Alex Carlile, the former Member for Montgomery. Why is there no provision for a review in the Bill? We hope that the spirit in which the Secretary of State came to that agreement with Alex Carlile will live on. The Government conceded in amendment No. 136 that a review of the Assembly's work with regard to sustainable development should be carried out. We should like an assurance from the Secretary of State that the agreement that was struck with Alex Carlile will be honoured. He has given that before, and I am sure he will not find it difficult to give it again.

The Tories say that their amendments will prevent split-ticket voting and stop parties using the additional member system to their advantage. I shall shorten my speech because we have been through all that and I want to make progress. The Minister has made it clear that there was no collusion. I said that we did not subscribe to such a practice and Plaid Cymru also said that, so we can bury that issue.

We would have some sympathy with the spirit of the amendment if the only outcome would be to prevent split-ticket voting. However, it would reduce voter choice, which is crucial, and would remove the ability of independents to stand in the regions as well. The amendments are not the best way to prevent dishonesty, and we do not support them. We supported amendments to the Registration of Political Parties Bill to prevent split-ticket voting, and I hope that another way can be found to prevent it under this legislation.

Lords amendment No. 21 closes a loophole that would allow a person who has left a political party to become an Assembly Member following a vacancy for the party that he or she has left. It will protect parties from the problem of defectors and ensure that voters are represented by a member of the party that they support. We welcome that amendment.

Photo of Robert Syms Robert Syms Conservative, Poole

In Committee, we had a wide-ranging debate on electoral arrangements. When we raised concerns, we were told that they would be dealt with under the Registration of Political Parties Bill. I was on the Committee that examined that Bill, and some of the issues that were raised then, especially by my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), relating to alter ego parties are not dealt with by that Bill. To some extent, that is why the amendment has been tabled. It would not be necessary if the Registration of Political Parties Bill had closed what may be a loophole.

When the electoral arrangements for a description on the ballot paper were changed in the late 1960s, James Callaghan told the House that the arrangements would not be abused, but, in recent years, people have used descriptions to mislead electors. The Registration of Political Parties Bill rules out that abuse, but, under the additional member system there is potential—I put it no higher than that—for abuse by some alter ego parties. We are all honourable people in the Chamber, and I do not think that any party would try to deceive the electors. However, if there is a loophole some party may try to use it. It may do that only once, after which there would be great uproar and perhaps the law would be changed. At this stage, the general concern, certainly among Opposition Members, is to close the loophole now.

A single vote proposal for first-past-the-post seats and a top-up list is not new. The Hansard Society proposed alternatives to our current electoral system in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and came up with a similar proposal. I understand the Secretary of State's point that, in one or two cases, it would cut out independents, but it is a question of balancing rights and wrongs. The deficiencies in the current legislation may outweigh the difficulties of the change in terms of a single vote causing difficulties for one or two independents.

The additional member system has been used in Germany, and there have not been many examples of alter ego parties. In one or two lander elections, particularly in north Germany, some states parties tended to align with one or other of the major parties—the Christian Democrats or the Social Democrats—because there was an advantage in picking up list seats. In the early 1950s, the German Refugees party, which was part of the Adenauer coalition, used to garner a substantial number of votes on the list. Of course, it was part of the general centre-right and over the years it was absorbed into the Christian Democrats. That is probably the only example of a party that picked up list seats. The issue is serious and it deserves careful consideration.

In the context of alter ego parties, whether it is an advantage to a party to try to pull a fast one depends a great deal on the predictability of the first-past-the-post results because, under the additional member system, the distribution of additional seats is in proportion to those who do badly or those who do very well in terms of first-past-the-post seats. The one certainty about Welsh politics, certainly in terms of single-member constituencies, is that it is a relatively predictable area of the United Kingdom in that it regularly returns Labour party candidates. I do not think that there are many marginal seats in the Principality. In future, it would be possible for a political party to form a view on how it will fare on first-past-the-post and perhaps arrange matters in a way that might enable it to get some slight additional benefit under the additional member system. That system reduces the likelihood of a party getting an overall majority, partly because of proportionality.

There are 40 first-past-the-post and 20 additional-list seats and perhaps a party—in the context of Wales, it would probably be the Labour party—might be close to an overall majority. In such an event, there would be a tremendous temptation to get an extra seat or two to try to form an administration. All politicians are sometimes tempted, especially when we feel passionately about our cause. The amendment merely tries to fill a gap that the Registration of Political Parties Bill has not filled and to deal with this important issue.

Mr. Öpik:

No Conservative Member has described how the Opposition system takes account of the fact that tactical voting will massively skew the proportions and further distort the outcome and make it difficult for proportional representation to work effectively.

Photo of Robert Syms Robert Syms Conservative, Poole

One of my reasons for being a great supporter of first-past-the-post is that it leaves greater discretion at constituency level with electors. If they wish to vote in a specific way, perhaps not particularly for their first preference but for a Liberal Democrat or a Labour candidate to defeat my party, that is their choice. Inevitably, there will be some variation in seats, but, in 40 constituencies, the swings and roundabouts would mean that the vote would not differ much when all the results were added. In Brecon, the tactical vote may go one way, but the seat next door may go in a completely different way. The totality of the vote would show a close correlation. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's point is material.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West

At the risk of taxing the patience and good will of the Secretary of State, particularly in this age of new politics and consensus, may I say that he rather overplayed the argument that the amendment addresses a problem that is largely a figment of Conservative imagination? That was certainly not the case in the other place. Lord Falconer of Thoroton said: My Lords, the Government have thought carefully about this. They are aware of the problem…Plainly, if someone provides a solution that deals with all the problems the Government will certainly think about it. They have given considerable thought to it. We do not have a closed mind,".—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 July 1998; Vol. 592, c. 272.] It is the height of irresponsibility to acknowledge that there is a problem with the legislation and to rely on the Opposition and other parties to address the solution. However, the solution having been addressed, it has been decided to reject it.

The second point that the Secretary of State was determined to labour was the minuscule probability of split-ticket voting, but that is not the perception of their lordships. Lord Bledisloe said: My Lords,… I think I now see that there is a real problem, certainly mathematically. I am also prepared to accept that it is a problem that is not just mathematical but is real, because from these Benches I am perfectly prepared to believe that any political party will commit any dirty trick which it thinks will be to its own advantage."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 July 1998; Vol. 592, c.269.] We all accept that no political party in the House today would indulge in that sort of activity. However, the Secretary of State described the pressures that led to tactical voting at the last general election. Does he suddenly believe that this new age of consensus and good will has banished those pressures for ever? Does he believe that future political leaders under those pressures will not institute just such a form of voting to achieve the desired ends? Of course that is possible, so it is right that we should try to deal with the issue now.

The right hon. Gentleman's principal argument against the amendment is that it would undermine the democratic integrity of the voting system. That is nonsense. AMS was introduced to address the overall proportionality of the votes. That will be guaranteed by the amendment.

7 pm

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

We have had an interesting debate and I think that we all understand the issues involved in the Lords amendment. I still believe that what the other place is suggesting is unfair and discriminatory. It does not deal with the problem of alter ego parties, despite the protestations of the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin). All parties in the House have given undertakings, and we all accept them. None of the existing political parties will become involved in the collusion that has been suggested. I say to the hon. Gentleman that, given Wales and Welsh politics, if that were to happen it would be quickly exposed and immediately reviled by the people of Wales. It would not be successful.

The amendment strikes at the heart of an important part of devolution—the settlement that we have and the new democratic arrangements that we are proposing for the Assembly. It is contrary to the mandate that was given to all politicians from Wales at the general election and contrary to the wishes of the people of Wales as expressed in the referendum. Therefore, I believe that the House should reject the amendment.

Lords amendment disagreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 5 to 12, 14 to 16, 18 and 20 disagreed to.

Lords amendment No. 21 and Government amendment thereto agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 22 disagreed to.