HC Deb 22 May 1989 vol 153 cc693-700

Motion made, and Question proposed, That Mr. Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for Vauxhall in the room of Stuart Kingsley Holland, who, since his election for the said constituency, hath accepted the Office of Steward or Bailiff of Her Majesty's Three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham in the County of Buckingham. —[Mr. Foster.]

4.27 pm
Mr. Bernie Grant (Tottenham)

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am becoming concerned when I am cheered from the other side of the House.

I am mindful of the fact that the Spring Adjournment debate is waiting, and I do not wish to deprive my Back Bench colleagues of the chance to raise matters of great import relating to their constituencies, so I shall be as brief as I can.

The Vauxhall constituency contains Brixton and has enormous symbolic importance for black people in the United Kingdom and in the Caribbean, as it was virtually the first place to which they migrated in recent times. Up to 50 per cent. of its inhabitants are estimated to be black and of Caribbean descent, and it is a barometer of black people's progress within the United Kingdom.

The Vauxhall constituency, in the borough of Lambeth, is—regrettably—an area of severe deprivation in every sphere: in education, employment and housing. That was charted in some detail by the right hon. the Lord Scarman OBE in his report "The Brixton Disorders 10–12 April 1981", after his inquiry into those disturbances, which none of us wish to see repeated. Lord Scarman was in no doubt about the level of deprivation and frustration that fuelled them.

Mr. Jerem Hanley (Richmond and Barnes)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Grant

I am sorry, but I must go on.

One of the key aspects of the frustration of black people is their lack of politicial representation. Lord Scarman had this to say about it: In addition they do not feel politically secure. Their sense of rejection is not eased by the low level of black representation in our elective political institutions. Their sense of insecurity is not relieved by the liberty our law provides to those who march and demonstrate in favour of tougher immigration controls and 'repatriation' of the blacks.

Mr. Hanley

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Grant


Rightly or wrongly, young black people do not feel politically secure, any more than they feel economically or socially secure.

Mr. Hanley

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Grant

No. [HON. MEMBERS:"Give way."] Since the Scarman report, black people in Vauxhall and in other parts of the country have seized the political initiative and elected a substantial number of black local councillors. They have also elected or appointed black leaders of local councils. In doing so, they have shown their determination to use the political system rather than other means to redress their disadvantage.

That has not been easy, because the present Government have taken a number of steps in order to disfranchise black people. Some Lambeth councillors have been disbarred from office over rate capping. The Local Government and Housing Bill that is going through Parliament at this moment will make it even more difficult for black people to be selected as parliamentary candidates and to become councillors. The positive action programmes that have been put in hand by the local authority in Lambeth to ease the disadvantage of the black communities have been vilified by the press and the media and by some Ministers. Despite that, however, substantial progress has been made. The people of Vauxhall, particularly the black people, therefore feel that the next step should perhaps be a black Member of Parliament to represent them in this House.

It might have been expected, knowing the background to the Vauxhall constituency, that the major political parties would think it appropriate to field candidates who could reflect that deeply felt need for black representation at the highest political level. Having been to Vauxhall, I know that a substantial number of black people there having a sense of rejection and resentment at the fact that this opportunity was not seized by at least one political party.

People have asked why it is necessary to have a black Member of Parliament for Vauxhall; could not a white Member of Parliament do the job just as well? In answering that question, I have to point out that it is quite well established in the Labour party and in progressive circles—I almost said "and in other progressive circles" —that the principle that sections of society should represent themselves is paramount and that Parliament should reflect a cross-section of society, but that principle seems to have been rejected in Vauxhall. The main reason why sections of society should represent themselves is because only those who come from particularly disadvantaged sections of society—who have experienced the oppression, the frustration and the degradation that they feel—can understand precisely what is at stake with regard to policies that affect them.

To quote an example, I am unable to produce a child. Some say that that might happen in the future, but it is not possible now. Therefore, I cannot possibly know how women feel about child bearing because I am not a woman. In the Labour party, trade unionists represent trade unions. It would be silly and a nonsense if I were to try to represent young people in society. There is a clearly established principle that the people who are directly affected should represent themselves. In the two recent by-elections in Wales, the candidates had to be Welsh and Welsh-speaking. I support that principle. Local conditions should determine who is selected and positive action should be taken to ensure that people are properly represented.

It is a pity that the parties in Vauxhall did not adopt the principles that were adopted when the candidates for the Welsh by-elections were selected. The imposition of a candidate in Vauxhall is to be deplored. If President Gorbachev had imposed candidates during the recent elections in the Soviet Union, everybody would have been up in arms. In the United Kingdom, however, political parties can impose candidates without a qualm. What particularly concerns me about the imposition of this candidate is the fact that there was a particularly good field of black candidates from which to choose. They were candidates of all political persuasions. Some of the candidates were to the Left; some candidates were hard Left. A clear choice could have been made among the black candidates who put themselves forward.

One reason has been given for the non-selection of some of the black candidates who were selected by the local Labour party: that they were seen to be controversial. If one is a black politician worth one's salt, one has to be controversial, because this is a racist society.

Any black person who attempts to represent black people and put forward black issues properly will be torn apart by the media. If uncontroversial black candidates put themselves forward, they will not be capable of being selected because they will be politically inexperienced and naive and they will certainly not have been involved in raising black issues in the public forum. To expect a non-controversial black candidate to be selected is therefore nonsense.

It is unacceptable, too, that the excuses given for not selecting a black candidate have been publicly expressed in personal terms. The candidates were called "simple." There were other patronising terms. The candidates who were involved in the selection process are experienced. At least one is the leader of a local authority. Another candidate is the deputy leader of a local authority. Other candidates have been councillors for 10 years or more. The calibre of the candidates who put themselves up for selection was of the best. They would have represented any political party with dignity.

The failure to select a black candidate for the Vauxhall by-election will have certain consequences. At the moment there is a lack of representation in the House. Four Members of Parliament out of 650 are black. There are about 50 women Members of Parliament; there may be even fewer. Blacks and women are virtually in the same position. About eight times as many black parliamentarians should be here, and about eight times as many women should be here, too. Given the particular issues involved in Vauxhall, at least one political party ought to have acted positively and selected a black candidate.

I fear that the consequences will be these. There will be a loss of faith in the political system and in the political parties. Black and other minority people will set up separate organisations. If political parties will not allow black people a place in Parliament, black people will find other ways in which to make their voices heard. They will organise separately in areas where they live in numbers and take votes away from those who neglect them. They will join other communities—for example the Moslems—in a broad coalition against racism.

Once again, I quote Lord Scarman's report.[Laughter] I hear some guffaws from Conservative Members. The Government might feel that they have been left out of my speech, but responsibility lies with them and other political parties. Lord Scarman said: There is a lack of a sufficiently well co-ordinated and directed programme for combating the problem of racial disadvantage. Unless a a clear lead is given by Government, in this area as in others, there can be no hope of an effective response. The evidence I have received suggests that the black community in Britain are still hoping for such a lead, although they are cynical about what they see as the previous lack of response from all governments of whatever persuasion. If their hopes are again dashed, there is a real danger that cynicism will turn into open hostility and rejection. This must not be allowed to happen. Tomorrow's Opposition day debate on inner cities gives the Government an opportunity to say where they stand with the black community in Britain. It provides an opportunity for the Opposition to state clearly and categorically, following the fiasco in Vauxhall, their policies with regard to black and other minority communities. Unless both sides of the House make such clear and unequivocal statements, I fear that black people in Britain will feel that, once again, they can have no truck with and no faith in this parliamentary democracy.

4.41 pm
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Wakeham)

In recent months, I have had cause several times to state the conventions relating to by-elections. The House will by now be well aware that it is customary for the Chief Whip of the party which last held the seat to move the writ for the by-election, and to do so within three months of the vacancy occurring. This is what is happening today and there can be no objection to it. Stuart Holland applied for the Chiltern Hundreds on 18 May. It is in the interests of the people of Vauxhall that they be represented again in the House as soon as possible. The method of selection of the candidates by the parties involved in the by-election is not the responsibility of the House; I therefore hope the House will now support the motion in the name of the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster).

4.42 pm
Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

I declare an interest in this matter, since I live in the Vauxhall constituency.

I am not the only hon. Member of this place who lives in that constituency. My right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary is in his place, and he too lives in the Vauxhall division. My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Warren) is also a constituent of the late doctor [HON. MEMBERS: "Late doctor?"] The former doctor. [HON. MEMBERS: " Former?"] The former Member of this place. Not only Conservative Members were constituents of our late colleague; the hon. Members for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo) and for Redcar (Ms. Mowlam), those two heroines of the Left, also live in the Vauxhall division.

The arguments as to whether you, Mr. Speaker, should issue your writ for this by-election are finely balanced, ft is arguable that the people of Vauxhall need much longer to recover from the shock of the departure of their Member of Parliament.

I have been studying, as you will have been studying, Mr. Speaker, the achievements of our former colleague. He was the author of "The Socialist Challenge." He was also the author of a remarkable work, which some of my hon. Friends have committed to memory, called "The State as Entrepreneur". This breathtaking contradiction in terms was no mystery to our late colleague, because he was a frequent visitor to many overseas lands. I find that he made a journey to Moscow when the House was sitting in October 1987, a further journey to Moscow when the House was sitting in February last year, and another journey to Moscow in November of last year, again when the House was sitting. At least there was one advantage for our late colleague's constituents; we were not troubled frequently by visits from him in the constituency—he was too busy making these journeys.

It will be a source of satisfaction to you, Mr. Speaker, that our former colleague has taken up an appointment which is funded by the European Economic Community. We understand that he has taken up an appointment at the university of Florence on a salary designated in European currency units, which is not a currency beloved by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. The equivalent would be £40,000 a year, and it attracts European rates of taxation.

Our former colleague is to be head of the economic and industrial development unit at the university, and no teaching commitments are involved. That will be a matter of some relief to those at the university. In addition to his duties at Florence university, we are told he is a part-time speech writer for Mr. Delors, which gives added justification to some of the criticisms made of Mr. Delors by Her Majesty's Ministers. We are also told that he is a part-time speech writer to the present leader of the Opposition.

The hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant) spoke about the selection procedures of his party. I have already explained to the House that in November of last year our former colleague attended a conference in Moscow. A fortnight after he left the capital of the Soviet Union a new text was issued, of which, for greater accuracy, I have obtained a copy, entitled, "Soviet Constitutional Reform", which was issued on 7 December last year and is relevant to the procedures of the Labour party. I shall read the opening sentences of this massive work: Elections of people's deputies…shall take place in single-seat constituencies on the basis of universal, equal and direct suffrage by secret ballot. There are precisely the same arrangements for general elections in the Soviet Union as we have here, but here are the changes made in the Soviet Union in December of last year: A meeting"— that is, a meeting to select a candidate— shall be quorate"— that is a rather strange translation, meaning that there shall be a quorum— if it is attended by at least 500 voters living in the territory of the constituency.

Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)

Is it important?

Mr. Gow

That point was raised not by me but by the hon. Member for Tottenham.

The new rules laid down in Russia continue: A candidate shall be considered nominated if more than one-half of the participants at the meeting or a majority of the total membership of the relevant body of a social organisation vote for him. There follow the key words: The participants in the constituency election meeting shall be delegated by the work collectives"— words loved by the Left.

At least one-half of the participants of the meeting must be voters from that constituency. That is the key passage.

In Vauxhall, the local comrades wanted to choose their own candidate. They chose a candidate who was black, who was a women and who was a unilaterialist. That choice was overthrown by the central hierarchy of the Labour party. Such an overthrow of local decision making would never have happened in the Conservative party—[Interruption.] On the contrary, in the Conservative party, each local association is autonomous, and it is a tribute to the judgment of those associations that we have such excellent Members. So we do not have the same problem as exists in the Labour party.

I was rather saddened by the speech of the hon. Member for Tottenham. He seemed to be telling the house that there should be in this place in proportion to the total population an equivalent number of Jews, Roman Catholics, Asians or Africans. I disagree fundamentally with that proposition. It is perfectly possible for a Roman Catholic Member of Parliament to represent Protestants and atheists. It is perfectly possible for a European Member of Parliament to represent those who are Asian or African and it is perfectly possible for a Jewish Member of Parliament to represent adequately, honestly and honourably those who do not belong to the Jewish faith.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Gow

I have almost finished my speech.

The sense of shock about the departure of our late colleague is real among the electorate. It might be wise if we were to postpone for a short time the by-election, not least so that further consideration can be given to the excellent points raised by the hon. Member for Tottenham.

4.52 pm
Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

I had no intention of speaking and I shall speak for only three or four minutes. We had better get one thing right. The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) has misled the House on a very important point by saying that the constituency party in Vauxhall had already selected a candidate. That is not true. I do not agree with the decision of my national executive in imposing the candidate, but it is not true that that constituency party had already appointed or selected a candidate. The argument is whether or not the constituency party was allowed to choose one of the candidates who had been nominated or were likely to be nominated. However, I want to put it on record that it is not true that the constituency party had already decided on the candidate. It has not yet reached that stage.

I do not agree with my executive, but the rules are being applied. I did not agree with those rules when they were introduced. The Labour party now lays it down that the national executive can decide the candidate in a by-election. I do not agree with that. I did not agree with it at the time, and I do not agree with it now, but the Labour party has not gone outside the rules, whether or not we agree with the rules.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne always makes amusing speeches in the House.

Ms. Short

No, he does not.

Mr. Heffer

I have always thought that all his speeches are very funny. They are some of the funniest speeches I have ever heard. That does not mean that they have a great deal of content, but they are very funny. I thought that he made quite an interesting speech.

Finally, I appeal to my hon. Friends to consider the local position. In the last analysis, it is vital that the candidate should be decided by members of a local party. Looking back at the history of the Labour party in my city of Liverpool, I do not think that we ever put up a Roman Catholic in a Protestant ward. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Because it was felt that that might not be politically wise. [Interruption.] If Conservative Members will listen for a moment, after a number of years that was changed by the rank and file in the constituencies, who decided to put up a candidate whether that candidate was Protestant or Roman Catholic, and that has been the position for a long time. The people in Vauxhall should decide the issue, and candidates should not be imposed from outside.

4.57 pm
Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Just briefly, my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) referred to the late candidate. If by late he means that he missed the bus, my hon. Friend is wrong. He was early, he got on the gravy train and he has no problems at all. He is an absconding candidate. It is only a shame that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is not here with his encylopaedic knowledge of the perks, the privileges, the financial sustenance that goes with membership of these various European bodies, because I am sure that he would point out to the House the benefits that the previous Member for Vauxhall is taking for himself by turning his back on his constituents and absconding to Europe.

An important point of principle has been touched upon. The candidate that we now apparently have, if the by-election goes ahead as is currently scheduled, has been imposed on the constituency by the party leadership, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne has said, under powers which have been surrendered by the Supreme Soviet itself. I ask whether it is a matter of parliamentary privilege that these bullying tactics should be applied to one small constituency in London in such a graphic and heavy-handed way.

Finally, I do not agree with the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant) classifying people by their colour and the rest of it, but I have some sympathy with his speech. This is a wonderful democracy that we live in. If the hon. Gentleman sincerely believes that the largest grouping, the largest level of support in the constituency of Vauxhall, would come from black people who also happen to be Socialist—and that is their choice—I put it to the hon. Gentleman that the sensible thing to do, the proper thing to do and the democratic thing to do would be to have such a candidate who could secure the maximum of that support. I put it to the hon. Gentleman that, on mature consideration, if he feels that that is what the people of Vauxhall want, it would be quite wrong if there were not a black Socialist candidate standing in that constituency.

4.59 pm
Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)

I should like to underline one or two of the points that have been made. It is clear from all the speeches that, whatever happens in Vauxhall, the electorate will not be presented with a Labour candidate selected by the Vauxhall constituency. On that, I have every sympathy with the hon. Members for Tottenham (Mr. Grant) and for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heller). The lists produced by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) of his fellow constituents in Vauxhall did not include the name of the Leader of the Opposition. Therefore, I am not sure why the Leader of the Opposition should have a say in choosing the candidate.

I can underline the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne about how sadly the former hon. Member for Vauxhall is missed by his constituents. He has been missed for some time. I represent the constituency bordering Vauxhall and, time and again, my mail includes letters from his constituents. Time and again people, both black and white, come to my surgery asking me to take up matters affecting the Vauxhall constituency. Why is that? Have they been unable to find a Clapham bus that goes to Florence?

Mr. Gow

Or Moscow.

Mr. Bowis

Indeed, but there may be quicker ways of getting to Moscow than on the Clapham bus.

There is a further point that we should consider before allowing the writ to proceed. That is whether an enormous amount of public money and the time of public servants might be wasted if the by-election went ahead with the imposed Labour candidate. Let us suppose that, despite the efforts of the multifarious elements in the Labour party, the candidate were to win, is there any precedent for such a candidate being deselected within a week?

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That Mr. Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for Vauxhall in the room of Mr. Stuart Kingsley Holland who, since his election for the said constituency, bath accepted the Office of Steward or Bailiff of Her Majesty's Three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham in the County of Buckingham.