HC Deb 10 July 1913 vol 55 cc673-700

This Act shall come into force on the first day of January, nineteen hundred and sixteen.

Clause brought up, and read the first time.


I beg to propose, "That the Clause be read a second time."

No date is mentioned in this Bill on which it is to come into operation, and we are entitled to assume that unless rejected by another place it will come into operation on the occasion of the next General Election. The discussion which we had upon the last Clause has been quite sufficient to prove that the Bill in its present state is by no means a workable measure for getting rid of what is known as the anomaly of plural voting. But my great objection to this Bill coming into force is that it attempts to deal with only one of a great many of what may be Called anomalies. Hon. Members on both sides have described plural voting as an anomaly. For myself, I do not consider that plural voting is an anomaly, so long as you have representation of localities as the system by which we elect in this country. I quite admit that there are a great many anomalies in the plural voting system, but I do not admit that the actual system of plural voting is itself of necessity an anomaly, but there is no doubt that whether it be an anomaly or not, there are a great many other anomalies which are of a much more glaring description. The first one that comes to my mind is the unequal representation of the voters of this country. Glaring examples of over-representation and under-representation have been brought before our minds, but it is admitted on both side of the House that the question of representation and redistribution is one which very seriously needs the attention of this House. As long ago as 1902 the Prime Minister said:— I think that we are all agreed that the existing state of our representation as regards distribution is anomalous and indefensible, and calls for a speedy remedy. The President of the Board of Education, in taking part in the Second Reading Debate upon this Bill, himself alluded to the anomaly of misrepresentation in this House, and his excuse for urging the House to go to a Second Reading of the Plural Voting Bill then was that it was the intention of the Government at an early date to deal with other anomalies. He went into the question at considerable length, and told the House what some of these anomalies were. He said that there was a question which the right hon. Gentleman alluded to, the question of returning officers' expenses:— I welcome cordially the general support which he has given to the proposal"— and so on. Then he goes on— There is the question of alternative voting, the question of holding all elections on one day, of the closing of public houses, and of making the day of the General Election a general holiday. There is also the question of the Corrupt Practices Act, and the use or rather the abuse of conveyances at elections. There is the question of the extension of the hours of polling; so I might go on. All these matters are matters which the Government really regard as of importance. It is their intention to deal with these subjects in a Bill before the next General Election. If there are anomalies left in connection with plural voting, we believe that, as soon as the franchise reform is introduced, these anomalies will disappear. Then he goes on to say— I hope the House will accept my word when I say it is our intention before the General Election to intro- duce a measure of this kind to deal with Franchise Reform. We intend to deal with that, and we also intend to deal with Redistribution upon a basis which I believe will command the general assent of the whole country. The right hon. Gentleman said clearly and unmistakably that in the opinion of the Government there is a large number of anomalies to be dealt with in our electoral system, and that it was the intention of the Government to deal with those before the next General Election. If that is the real and deliberate intention of the Government, they ought to accept this Clause, because it will insure that this Bill will not come into operation until these other anomalies have been dealt with. I mention the date, 1st January, 1916, because the House knows that under the Parliament Act, this Parliament must come to an end in the summer of 1915. Therefore, this Clause will enable the Government to carry out their pledge to bring in an Omnibus Bill which will deal with all these distinct matters with which they have declared their intention of dealing before the close of the present Parliament. When other Reform Bills were passed—although this is rather a pettifogging Reform Bill, yet I suppose we must call it a Reform Bill of some kind—there always followed upon any electoral reform a measure of Redistribution. I think that in 1832, Redistribution was tacked on to the actual Bill. In 1867, there was also a measure of Redistribution at the same time as there was reform, and although in 1894 Redistribution was not in the same Bill, yet a Redistribution Bill was passed before the Reform Bill of 1884 came into operation. Before you bring about any reform in regard to the electors you ought to make certain that a redistribution of scats is effected as rapidly as possible. But what is the Government doing? So far from carrying the reform of the redistribution of seats in this country, it is only making matters much worse. For instance, take Scotland. At the present moment that country is represented by a certain number of Unionists, including the university seats. The President of the Board of Education states that in Scotland there are about 55,000 plural voters, and he adds that the majority of those plural voters are Unionists. I believe they are. If you withdraw those 55,000 plural voters from the various Divisions in which voters have more than one vote, you are reducing the number who will be able to vote for Unionist candidates. The ordinary consequence would be that when an election takes place under conditions exactly similar to those in which the last election took place, you will have fewer Unionist Members returned for Scotland than you have at the present moment. In the name of common sense, is that really what you mean? I believe that at the present moment Unionist electors are grossly under-represented by the number of Unionists in this House.


The hon. Gentleman's observations are not relevant to the Clause which he is now proposing. He is going too deeply into the question of what would be the result of Redistribution, or what would be the result of passing this Bill without a measure of Redistribution. The hon. Member is entitled to go into the question of this Bill being passed without any Redistribution, but he is not entitled to go into the merits of the whole question of Redistribution.


The Government have openly enough shown their belief that the Plural Voting Bill, when passed, will give something like forty more seats to the Liberal party. They have not shown any sign of shyness about that. If they pass the Bill in its present form, without any Bill to reform other anomalies, they are really making the position very much worse than it is now; they are making it very much worse in Scotland and in England than it is now. I want the Government to bring in their scheme of reform of other anomalies before this Bill is allowed to come into operation. Of course they are in a great hurry to get the Bill through at this particular period of the Session, because they want it to become law under the Parliament Act. That of course is quite right from their party point of view; I quite appreciate their object in doing so; but it is not treating the House of Commons fairly. When the House of Commons has been told that it is the intention of the Government to deal with other anomalies, a Bill of this sort ought not to be passed until a measure dealing with the other anomalies has been also passed. It is to enable the Government to live up to their pledges that I move the Clause which stands in my name.


I beg to second the Motion.

I am sure the House will admit that in seconding the Motion, and in maintaining the view that a measure of Redistribution should be passed before the Plural Voting Act comes into operation, I am certainly not acting on any selfish motive, because I should undoubtedly be one of the first victims of Redistribution. I think it is fully admitted that Redistribution is at least as great an anomaly as plural voting. The Solicitor-General represents electors, the value of whose vote is ten times as much as the value of the vote in the constituency which sends me to Parliament. I do not think anyone will deny that the value of a vote can be worth ten times as much as it is in another place.


By the abolition of plural voters there will be a larger reduction in my election than you will have in yours.


Of course the hon. and learned Gentleman will have a bigger loss out of 39,000 than I shall have out of 3,000, but whether the proportions are larger or not, I cannot of course discuss. The point I wish to make is that the value of the vote is a point which we ought to consider carefully when we are dealing with the question now before the House of one man one vote. Under the present position it is quite possible for a man who has only one vote to have actually greater voting power than a man who has several votes in different constituencies. If the plural voter happens to hold his qualification in very large constituencies it is possible that the plural voting power is of greater value than the voting power of the man with one vote in a very small constituency. The fact that these questions are so intimately bound together seems to me to support the argument for dealing with the two reforms at one and the same time. I really cannot understand what is the objection to dealing with them together. I am perfectly certain that if the question of Redistribution and plural voting had been dealt with in one and the same Bill there would have been very much less resistance to the proposal than at present. The fact of the Plural Voting Bill being proceeded with suggests that there is a purely party advantage to one party, while it continues the anomalies which affect all parties in this House. I think the greater part of our objection to dealing with the matter of plural voting is that we think that the Government propose to pass this measure for a purely party advantage, while they do not attempt to deny that there are other anomalies of an equal and greater kind which are left untouched by this Bill. But I admit that there is one argument which may be used against the Amendment, and that is, if a Redistribution Bill were passed during the next year, it would come into effect before the Plural Voting Act, if this Amendment were carried—that is to say, that at an election in 1915 the Redistribution Bill, if passed next year, might possibly come into effect, while, if this Clause were carried, the Plural Voting Bill would not come into effect until 1915. But, of course, it would be perfectly possible to move an Amendment to the Bill providing that in the event of other anomalies being dealt with by another Bill that the Plural Voting Bill should come into effect at the same date as the other Bill. I think that is a possible way of dealing with the matter, and I, therefore, need say nothing more in seconding the Clause.


The Clause as printed on the Paper gives no reasons for the postponement of the Act. But I think it has been sought to justify the postponement, not by most of the reasons given by hon. Members who have spoken, but on the hypothesis—shown by the attitude of the party opposite—that hon. Gentlemen opposite do not like the abolition of plural voting. The attitude which they have revealed during this Debate is surely this: That they are shocked by the fact that we Liberals desire to do away with plural voters, who are mainly Conservatives, and they show that they are shocked at this outrage against political morality by doing their best to protect the plural voter. That is the issue between the two parties. They like the plural voter; we do not. They regard the plural voter as an advantage to our electoral system; we regard him as an unfair factor in our electoral system. This Clause provides that the Act shall not come into operation until 1916, but the party opposite would like to postpone it, not until 1916, but for ever. I am astonished, indeed, at the moderation of this new Clause. When I depart from those reasons for supporting the postponement of the Act to the others which were given by the hon. Member who moved this Clause, I am bound to say that I find myself most completely at a loss to understand them.

It is very noticeable in this House, and I think it is one of the testimonies to the excellence of our legislation, that the party opposite oppose our proposals, not on what is in the Bill, but on what is not in the Bill. On the question of old age pensions, the subject was discussed of people who had obtained pauper relief, and when the Insurance Bill was before the House, there was a discussion about the treatment of the Post Office contributors. And, in this instance, save for the junior Member for the City of London, there has hardly been an argument in favour of plural voting; all the arguments of the Opposition have been directed to showing that we have no business to deal with one anomaly when we do not deal with a large number of others. In defence of many of the. Amendments put forward on the other side they have used the argument that half a loaf is better than no bread. I need hardly remind the House that there has been an attempt made to deal with two anomalies in this Session. A Bill which received universal assent from all parties to prolong the hours of polling has been passed through this House. And this on which we are engaged is the second Bill which was referred to by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury as one of the things that ought to be done.


I said it was mentioned by the President of the Board of Education as one of the things which ought to be done.

7.0 P.M.


Yes; and we are now proposing to abolish plural voting. It does not require the argument of the hon. Member for Windsor, or the more elaborate argument of the hon. and gallant Member for Honiton (Major Morrison-Bell) to convince the Government of the necessity of Redistribution, and as something that ought to be done; but because we cannot do everything today, why should we not do something? One of the great obstacles in the opinion of those who sit on this side of the House to carrying through a proper scheme of Redistribution, is the Act of Union, and the first step towards Redistribution has been taken by the passage of the Home Rule Bill through this House. The argument is used that until we have dealt with Redistribution we have no right to abolish the plural voter at all. It is not as if one electoral anomaly corrected and altered the other. They are wholly independent anomalies. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury talks about Conservative votes cast in Scotland, and the number of seats. There is no guarantee that when Redistribution occurs, the minority in Scotland will have more seats. His argument ought to be directed at the proper time in favour of proportional representation; but it has nothing to do with this question. In fact, I am one of those who believe that the party which has most to gain from Redistribution is the party to which I belong. In the particular case quoted by the hon. Member for Windsor, we would have four Solicitor-Generals for Walthamstow, and another Member for Windsor, a clear gain of five seats to the party by Redistribution, accepting the analogy of the hon. Member. Very soon the hon. Member who has so much to do with the organisation of the Conservative party, will have an opportunity of testing whether he is right or wrong; very soon, as, the history of this country goes—[An HON. MEMBER: "How soon?" and Another HON. MEMBER: "The sooner the better"]—a short time in the history of a nation. I believe it would be impossible for anybody to mention a single electoral anomaly now existing in our system, which does not work in favour of the party opposite and against the party on these benches. Therefore, the contention that we should wait until we can deal with all of them loses its force from the fact that they cannot be held one to correct the other. The motive behind this new Clause is that the Conservative party do not desire that the abolition of plural voting shall take place before the next General Election. We believe that the plural vote has acted unfairly to the electors of this country. We never know how many voters are in favour of either side of political principles; we only know how many votes. We do not consider that is a fair way of ascertaining the opinion of the people in this country. We desire to sweep away what we consider to be one of the earlier and longest lived of our electoral injustices. I would remind the hon. Member that the inequalities of Redistribution are a far more recent injustice than that of plural voting. We desire to sweep away the injustice of plural voting as quickly as we can, and for that reason I ask the House to reject this proposal in order that the passage of this Act may not be delayed.


The hon. Member who has just spoken has rather invited a Second Reading discussion by his excursions into the past history of the questions of old age pensions and insurance. I hope he will not think I fail to meet his argument fairly if I decline to travel over so wide a ground. I should be in fear of incurring your displeasure, Sir, if I attempted to do such a thing. I propose only to speak about the particular new Clause which is now under, or supposed to be under, discussion. As far as the hon. Member had anything to say about that, I must say that he was delightfully frank—I think I might even say he was amazingly so. He said, "Here is a class of voter whom we dislike, whom the Liberal party dislike, as they have the audacity to cast their vote against us, and are you surprised, or is anybody surprised, or do you pretend to be shocked that under those circumstances we use every effort to sweep them off the register at once?" That is the right hon. Gentleman's idea of statesmanship and equity and fair play. By common consent of all parties we have a great number of anomalies, of which he is pleased to think that this is the worst because it has existed the longest. I think a new anomaly is always worse than an old one, and on that point, therefore, I take a view exactly opposite to that taken by the hon. Member. He thinks this one is the worst because it has existed longest, but he admits there are others, and other Members of the Government have admitted there are others which equally require our attention, and which we on this side of the House think require it even more urgently. The hon. Member said, "Do you expect us to take, a general survey of the position of the franchise and to deal with the whole subject at once? Could anything be more unreasonable?" What he recommends to be done is that they should pick and choose, and that they should redress those anomalies which tell against themselves, and that they should be indifferent to the existence of those anomalies from which they may derive advantage or not.

That is a different line from the line taken by other Members of the Ministry on previous occasions, as shown by the Mover. They have given us the assurance that though they are not prepared to put any date on that Bill, or to make any fixed date for dealing with the question, that it was their intention, before another General Election, to deal with the wider anomalies of which I have been speaking. What does the hon. Gentleman say about it? A chance word of his happened to be cheered. He spoke of the question being shortly dealt with. My hon. Friend, he said, will have the opportunity very shortly, "very soon," of finding out whether, if a constituency was divided into four constituencies, we shall have four Solicitor-Generals and all of the Liberal faith. The hon. Member, surprised by the cheers which greeted the announcement that we should very soon be able to test the question, hastily corrected himself and explained that when he said "very soon" he meant a short time in the history of a nation. Do you wonder when the hon. Gentleman himself and when the Government express these pious intentions of dealing with those other anomalies very possibly in a short time, and when he explains that by "short time" he means a short time in the history of a nation, he is surprised that under those circumstances we prefer to have a date put in the Bill? Perhaps you would allow me to make a passing reference to previous legislation, not dwelling more upon it than the hon. Gentleman opposite has done. We had exactly the same pious intentions expressed at the time of the passing of the Parliament Act. There the pious intentions were even embodied in the solemn form of a Preamble.

What are such intentions worth? What effect has the Government given to them? They express them to grease the wheels of the Parliamentary machine to assist the particular proposal which they are at the moment advancing in its passage through the House. Once they have done their work they pay no further attention to them, and they are not worth anything for any practical purpose. So it is with the pious intentions now expressed that this question will be dealt with at some period not far distant in the history of the nation. The hon. Member himself, much younger than I am, may have gone to another sphere long before a promise of that kind becomes due for fulfilment. We are anxious to get to the country as soon as we can, but if these anomalies are to he redressed before we get there we would like that redress to be complete. We would suggest that, at any rate, it is a moderate claim to make that some effort should be made by the Government to do even-handed justice to both sides of the House, and that they should not attempt to seek mere party advantage by a partial and incomplete reform.


I happened this afternoon to read a speech of Mr. Gladstone in introducing a franchise reform Bill in 1884, and I came across a sentence in that speech in which he was dealing with very much the same kind of subject matter as is contained in this Amendment. It is in such striking contra distinction to that of the Under-Secretary that I quote it. [The Noble Lord quoted a passage from the speech referred to.] That view taken by Mr. Gladstone in 1884 is, as far as I know, the view that is always taken by successive Governments of both parties in the passing of Franchise Reform Bills. They have always endeavoured to ease the gradient with which they were altering the franchise, and to remove the anomalies which they sought to remove in the least violent manner possible. The attitude of the present Government, as expressed by the Under-Secretary, is perfectly simple and plain. He has none of that regard for justice which was shown by Mr. Gladstone and by other Governments when amending the franchise. The attitude he takes up is this: That it is perfectly true that there are other anomalies such as Redistribution which he, seemed to feel quite as strongly as any of us on this side. "But," said the hon. Gentleman in effect, "what we care about is not anomalies, but how to win the next election. It does not matter how many anomalies there are, what we are here for and what we have passed the Parliament Act for, and what we are passing this Bill for is to win the next election. We are not concerned with anomalies. We only want to win elections. We want to perpetuate ourselves on the Treasury Bench in order that this country may enjoy a Government of the high model and intellectual level which the present Government has attained." That is a very simple and concise attitude heartily supported by hon. Gentlemen behind. I do not propose to waste time in dealing with that, because it is perfectly clear to the country and to the people at large that that is the only object of introducing this Bill. The hon. Gentleman says he feels strongly about Redistribution, and he made a most extraordinary statement that they were going to have four Solicitor-Generals if my hon. Friend was going to be disfranchised. He has been a Member of a Government that has been seven years in office, and during that time they have never attempted to deal with the anomaly of Redistribution. Why have they not? It is because the Government at large have not yet been convinced that it is going to help them electorally. They think this Bill is, and, therefore, they refuse to postpone its coming into force. I do not think it is to the advantage of myself or anybody else to waste any time in the discussion of such a proposal, although in our history, when Governments have attempted to make violent, sudden, and quite unjustifiable changes in our electorate machinery and our franchise, they have generally come to a bad end in a very short time. I hope the Under-Secretary, with that great knowledge of constitutional history which I am sure he possesses, will study the history of the Government that came into office after 1832. He will find that many of those who supported reform then supported it on the same cynical grounds as those upon which this Bill is supported, and that that Government came to a more sticky end than almost any other Government in the last hundred years. The truth is that when we are dealing with electoral machinery cynicism does not pay.


The charge made against us is that out of a large number of electoral anomalies we are dealing with only one—the greatest of them all—


Not the greatest.


We think so, at any rate, but I will not quarrel over the word. That we are dealing with only one of these anomalies is not a fair argument to come from the other side of the House. The Franchise Bill of last year did attempt to correct a number of anomalies, but, unfortunately, for reasons which are within the memory of all of us, we were unable to get forward with that measure. The clamour has been that this Bill, which is a sweetly innocent and mild measure, ought not to be brought into force unless accompanied by a Redistribution Bill. Members cannot have thought out the facts of the case when they make that claim. I doubt whether Members opposite are more enthusiastic in their desire to see satisfactory even-handed Redistribution proposals carried into law than we are on this side. But you cannot have that until you have settled with the Home Rule Bill, which will affect a considerable number of the present Members of the House. You cannot have that until you know what alteration is made by the proposals of this Bill. You will have to count noses, and until you know what to subtract from the voting strength of the different constituencies you cannot deal on any satisfactory basis with Redistribution.


How will you know that by this Bill?


We shall know it by the compilation of the register.


But all the names will remain on the register. The only thing altered will be the right to vote.


At any rate, when this Bill is carried we shall be much better able to deal with the matter on a satisfactory basis. The right hon. Gentleman stated that we propose to wipe out all these voters. Nothing of the kind. This Bill will not disfranchise a single man who now has a vote. It only says that he shall enter the electoral lists on a fair and equal footing with any other man. That surely cannot be objected to by anyone. The whole thing hinges on this fact: The party of progress which we claim to represent cannot by any conceivable readjustment ever hope to fight on equal terms with the Opposition. Whether you deal with the constitution of the House of Lords or whatever you do, you cannot possibly in the nature of things ever bring us into the battle line on level terms. What do hon. Gentlemen opposite say? "When you ask us to submit to this amendment of the electoral law you are doing us a grave injustice." Are they forced to use an argument of that sort? Are they able, as fair-minded men, to ask us to sit down to the electoral game with the dice loaded against us? What right have they to say deliberately that we are to be handicapped for ever by an abuse of this kind?


How are you handicapped?


According to the statements of the Noble Lord's own Friends, the majority of these persons vote for the party opposite; therefore, if this abuse were swept away, they would lose so much of their voting strength. This demand for an unfair advantage in the electoral struggle is not creditable to the great Conservative party, who, after all, always claim to stand up for justice, equality, and level dealing.


The hon. Member opposite has displayed a great absence of knowledge of the subject with which he was purporting to deal. He was actually under the astonishing impression that if this Bill were passed it would necessitate an alteration of the voting lists. Nobody can have read the Bill without seeing that it does nothing of the sort. It is merely a restriction on the power of certain individuals to vote. Several very good reasons have been given why this Clause should be accepted, and so far we have not heard a single reason against it. The hon. Gentleman in charge of the Bill—I think it must have been a slip on his part—rsferred to its coming into operation before the next General Election, whereas the first words of the Bill refer to the occasion of a General Election. The Bill can come into operation only upon a General Election taking place. The object of this Clause is that if a General Election takes place before the proposed date the Bill shall not apply to it. That is the real meaning of the Clause. We would prefer that at the normal end of the present Parliament, if the Parliament so long continues, then and then only, when the Government will have had an opportunity of carrying out the pledge distinctly given by the Prime Minister, this Bill should come into operation. The idea at the basis of the proposed Clause is that in the event of some contingency arising under which the Government thought they would have a good chance of winning a sudden General Election they should not have the power of applying the privileges given to them by this particular measure, as they had not availed themselves of the opportunity of removing other electoral anomalies even more serious than plural voting.

This Bill will not create any confusion whatever in the voting lists, or necessitate any work being done in connection therewith. Therefore we do not support this Clause on the ground that it would create a mass of work and difficulty for the officials who have to compile the voting lists. But there are other people even more interested in the constitution of the voting lists than the officials who have to compile them—I mean the Members of Parliament themselves and those who have announced their intention of contesting the seats which we hold. They are keenly interested in knowing what sort of constituencies they are going to have at the next election. Hon. Members on both sides have admitted that. The hon. Member in charge of the Bill has referred to the difficulty of the seat held by the Solicitor-General, and he has spoken in somewhat contemptuous terms of the seat held by the Seconder of the proposed new Clause. It is a very serious matter. If we passed this Bill without inserting any date, and it came into operation immediately it received the Royal Assent, not a single Member of this House would know with any certitude what the extent of his constituency would be. It would create, from the point of view of the political organisations in every division in the country, a very difficult situation necessitating a large number of inquiries. I submit, therefore, that as a matter of common justice and convenience we are entitled to have a reasonable time given to us to ascertain how our constituencies would be affected. The Government are not entitled without some reasonable interval to force upon the whole of the constituencies a measure which would cause considerable trouble and difficulty to every Member of the House. That applies to Members opposite equally with Members on this side. The arguments which have been used would not affect me personally, because I have no plural voters in my Division. I made a present of them to the other Divisions of Liverpool on the occasion of the last election; therefore, I should not be affected to any extent.

The hon. Member in charge of the Bill, when he stated that Redistribution was quite independent of this question, was radically wrong, for a very simple arithmetical reason, which I will put before the House. Supposing you have got a voter who is a plural voter in two equal constituencies of 30,000 voters. It is quite clear that the electoral value of that man, if he exercises both votes, is one in 15,000. But you also have a man with only one vote in an ordinary constituency of, say, 9,000 voters. His electoral value, therefore, is one in 9,000 voters. Is it not perfectly obvious that under those circumstances even the plural voter with his two votes has not got as much representation as the man who has got a single vote only? Therefore, I respectfully submit—I would not have been betrayed into this line of argument, which I do not think has anything to do really with the merits of this particular Clause, if it had not been for the astonishing statement made by the right hon. Gentleman in charge of the Bill—that the simple arithmetical means I have suggested clearly refutes his point. There is no date in this Bill. The Clause proposes to put a date in. The reply of the right hon. Gentleman in charge of the Bill to that point was that he wanted the Bill to become operative before the next General Election. This is evidently en- tirely beside the mark, because if he had only thought about the subject for the moment, he would have seen on the very face of the Bill itself that it cannot come into operation before the next General Election. What we are anxious to do as a matter of fairness is that if this Bill is passed, and the plural voter is to be abolished—and my own view is that he ought to be—[An HON. MEMBER: "Oh!"] I have always advocated that. It has been in every one of my election addresses. I favour one man one vote. But I say if this has to be done, it ought to be done in a proper manner, and at the proper date. We are entitled to have some reasonable notice as to exactly when it has to come into operation. I respectfully put this before hon. Gentlemen on the Front Government Bench. If they will agree to put this date into the Bill, and not leave it so that they can spring this new scheme upon the public, and upon the House of Commons, at any moment which they think by means of a sudden General Election, I suggest that the Bill will have a good deal more chance of being passed by the other place when it arrives there. It will give their advocate there, if they have one, an opportunity of pointing out that it is not intended to suddenly spring upon the electorate this matter, but that it is intended that the law really shall come into operation at a future date, so that its provisions may be reasonably anticipated and provided for. If the Government refuse—and I take it that the right hon. Gentleman's advice will be taken by the Government and that they will refuse to insert this Clause—then why should the other House accept the Bill instead of automatically postponing it to this very date by throwing it out, at all events on the present occasion. For these various reasons I think the Government would be well advised in their own interest to accept the Clause.


I cannot agree with my hon. Friend who has just sat down. Hon. Members opposite are always complaining that we on this side of the House do not put forward enough reasons for the retention of the plural vote. I think one of the strong reasons is the very great number of questions of local interest that have to be dealt with.


The question before the House is that the coming into operation of the Act should be postponed till 1916.


I was only, Mr. Speaker, answering the argument put forward on the other side. However, I will not pursue that subject any further. There is a very strong reason indeed why this new Clause should be passed at once. It is in order that the electorate should clearly give their opinion as to their real views of this measure. Hon. Members opposite are always anxious to point out how plural voting is the greatest anomaly and the one to be removed swiftest. I do not think that they realise the other anomalies that exist. An hon. Member who spoke on the other side stated that we were endeavouring to fight unfairly against his side. He forgets other things, that are doing harm at the present time. We wish that when one thing is dealt with, the whole should be dealt with. We do not wish that one anomaly, which hon. Gentlemen are very pleased to think is the one that harms them most, should be dealt with first. The whole question, the great anomaly of the electoral law, should be dealt with. At the present time there is the question of the soldiers and the sailors. I cannot go into it now, but there are other disadvantages every bit as big as the one under discussion. We ask that you should not bring this Act into operation until you endeavour to deal with other anomalies quite as great and serious as the one you are endeavouring to deal with in this Bill. The right hon. Gentleman in charge of the Bill was perfectly frank in the matter. It is going to give his party an advantage to get rid of the plural voter, and for that reason he wants it. We say, if you are prepared to deal with these other anomalies which are just as great, to deal with the electoral laws in a big, comprehensive measure, and with Redistribution at the same time, then we will do our best to assist you. But to endeavour to carry, purely as a matter of party advantage, the passage of this Act, seems to me one of the most cynical proceedings that has been seen in this House for a great many years.


The hon. Gentleman who has just spoken has advanced an argument which I have heard advanced against every reform that has been before us in this House. It is proposed to remove an anomaly, an injustice, and the hon. Baronet says that unless at the same time you remove some other anomaly his side will not listen to it for a moment. He knows perfectly well that in the state of the business of this House it is quite im- possible to do more than one thing, and one small thing, at a time. If you are to connect the measure before us with some other measure it will be impossible to pass the measure at all. Therefore, the hon. Baronet will attain his desire to frustrate the present proposal. I will not suggest that that is his motive, but he knows that will be the case. The hon. Member for Liverpool, who preceded him, advanced the only argument that I have heard in favour of this dilatory new Clause—that is, that it would be a convenience to Members of this House and candidates to know well in advance what their constituencies were. That reason appeals to me. But I think it is a very small matter compared with the rights of the electors. It is more important, I think, that right should be done to an electorate amounting to eight or ten millions than that the convenience of 670 Members of this House should be respected. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Liverpool stands in a proud preeminence amongst the hon. Gentlemen who sit around him, inasmuch as he has always been opposed to plural voting. He points to his election addresses as evidence of his faith and of his practice. In view of this, I hope that on second thoughts he will give his support to defeat this Amendment. He said that ho had heard no argument adduced against it. I submit that the onus is upon him to prove his case, and not upon us to rebut it. I do not think that he said what the hon. Baronet did, that the Government, in bringing forward this measure, is actuated by a desire to promote the interests of their own party. That has been said by all the speakers to whom I have listened.




I make an exception in the case of the hon. Gentleman. For my part, I acquit the Government of any such desire. The simple motive that actuates me is this: Whereas a General Election is rather an intricate means of ascertaining the opinion of the people—we all know it, for we have found it so—an error has crept into the process, inasmuch as a large number of the electors, which I think has been computed at nearly half a million, vote not only once, but two or three or a larger number of times. I say that in ascertaining the opinion of the people of this country it is desirable to eliminate that error, and that is what this Bill proposes to do. That being the case, a dilatory Amendment does not appeal to me in the least. If this Bill be a good thing, as I honestly believe it is, quite regardless of its effect upon party politics, let us have it, and let us have it as soon as possible. Let us, too, reject this Amendment, which would deprive the electors of this country at the next election of the opportunity of voting according to their true numerical force.


This Debate is one of deep and great interest, because for the first time, I think, we have heard it clearly stated and understood that it is not the intention of the Government to introduce any scheme or measure of Redistribution before this Bill becomes operative. Several times when the earlier Bills were before the House, and even during the earlier discussion on this Bill, I myself made attempts to try to ascertain whether it was the intention of the Government to pass this Bill before Redistribution was introduced, or whether, at any rate, Redistribution was to be introduced contemporaneously with this Bill. Up till now we have never had a definite answer to that question. Now we know it is not. I must congratulate the right hon. Gentleman who spoke from the Front Bench opposite on the wonderful cynicism and frankness with which he has stated the proposition in this discussion. He quite frankly said, "I conceive the object of those who sit on the opposite side of the House to be to postpone the operation of this Bill as long as they can, because they think it will minimise the number of people who will support them. We on this side want the Bill to pass as quickly as possible, because we want to minimise the number of people voting against us." Quite frankly and honestly, it has been stated that the object of this Bill is to do away at the next General Election, or before the next General Election, with an anomaly which hon. Gentlemen on that side of the House admit is detrimental to their political interests. Surely, however, you are going by this Bill not to disfranchise men. You are going to produce this result that in a country, the electoral system of which is that Members are returned to represent constituencies in different parts of the country, a great number of people who hitherto have been allowed to be registered to vote in one part of the country will not be able to do so in the future, for that particular part.

At the same time you are disorganising an electoral system which it has taken centuries to build up. All those ownership voters and occupation voters have only succeeded in obtaining the vote after a struggle which often has lasted for many years. You are going to alter the very foundations of the whole of this system, and yet you are not going to do what you ought to do, you are not going to remedy what you admit to be a glaring existing anomaly, namely, that some parts of the country are over represented and others are under represented. But, putting aside this argument, let us take one test of the bona fides of the Government. Putting aside this question whether the change will be an advantage to one party or the other, let us ask, and this is the real point, what is the justice or the injustice of the proposal? From that point of view, on what principle of common sense can you justify leaving the next election to take place, when this alteration has been carried out on the existing register, and all the other anomalies and injustices, all these things of which you complain so bitterly and glibly, are left untouched? Do either one thing or the other. Leave things as they are or sweep away all those injustices and anomalies at the same time, or at any rate attempt to remedy the very gross anomaly of under representation and over representation before you carry through the political scheme which is comprised in the pages of this Bill. Do not leave the next election to take place after merely abolishing the votes of those who are opposed to you. Leave it to take place on the existing register, and if you do not, I submit you stand condemned as political pretenders of the most barefaced kind.


The hon. and learned Gentleman used an expression at the beginning of his speech which indicated that he thought that some variation had been made in the declaration of our intentions which from time to time have been made from this Bench.


Not a variation. We have at last got the declaration we have so long been seeking.


It is just as well if the hon. and learned Gentleman thinks he has made a discovery that we should make it quite clear what the discovery is. He cannot have been in the House when previous declarations were made, as they have been made very clearly, by the President of the Board of Education. What he has said more than once is that it is the intention of the Government in the course of this Parliament, if this Parliament runs its normal course, to introduce proposals for Redistribution. That is what we say. It has not been said for the first time to-day, and more than once it has been commented upon and criticised from the other side. It is perfectly open to hon. Gentlemen opposite to say, if they like, that, however honestly meant that declaration may be, it is only a declaration of intention, and intentions are not always realised. I do not complain of that criticism; it is a criticism which naturally arises upon such a declaration. But there is nothing novel about what has been said this afternoon, and nothing in what the Under-Secretary for India said disagrees with it. What happened in the course of his speech was that he made a reference to the next General Election as something that was going to happen very soon. There was some jeering and interruption, and he made some observations about a thing being a short time in the history of a nation. That does not in the least affect the declaration of the Minister of Education. That is how the matter stands. On the merits of the present proposal the House will observe that it is not a proposal in any way to condition the change made by this Bill with the amendment of another anomaly. It is simply a proposal that the Bill shall not come into force for some years to come, whereas in the ordinary course it would come into force this year and would be ready whenever a General Election takes place. That is our intention, and we make no secret of it. I am quite unable to understand how it is that those who defend the record and share the opinions of the late Unionist Government can possibly complain of the proposal of this Government. How does this matter of Redistribution—I will not argue its merits—really stand in relation to this Bill?

This Government in the course of last Session and this Session has indicated that it intends to carry into law a Blil, which, amongst other things, is going to remove from this House sixty Irish Members, most of whom are supporters of the present Government, and it is this Government which is criticised, because it is said that we are afraid that Redistribution would adversely affect our party interest. Really, if there is this enthusiasm for Redistribution, what is the explanation of the fact that for the best part of a generation when the Unionist party were in control of Government legislation in this House, they never produced during the whole of that long period of power any proposal to redistribute the representation in this House until they came to their very dying moments in 1905, and when they did so, their proposal was so preposterous that their supporters in the Press, in the country, and even in this House, found it was more than they could swallow, and it was abandoned by universal consent and amid universal derision. And yet we are told, because we desire to deal with a definite injustice here and now and as soon as ever a General Election may take place, we are told, forsooth, that we are actuated by selfish motives and that hon. Gentlemen opposite have a higher view of public duty. If we are to go into motives, their opposition to this Bill is just as open to criticism as being due to their anxiety to preserve an advantage, as the supporters of the Government are, who are anxious to remove an injustice. Ultimately we get back to the question, which is right? You say we seek to gain an advantage. You want to keep your advantage as long as you can, and therefore you spend your time asserting that the Bill should be postponed. There could be only one justification in reason for the proposal put forward by the other side, and that would be if it could be shown that while plural voting is one injustice which works in a particular direction, the present electoral inequalities are an injustice which works in the other direction, and that so long as the two things exist side by side, they each side by side tend to correct one another. If that could be shown, there would be some real force in the suggestion that you should not deal with one injustice without touching the other. But that is not true. There is no relation between these two anomalies which tends so long, as they both operate, to produce a perfect balance.

It may be quite true, as the Under-Secretary for India has said, that the plural voter on the whole operates to secure a larger representation for the Conservative party than they would otherwise get. Be it so. That does not prove it is right that the Conservative party should have a larger representation. It is arguable that the plural voter secures a larger representation for one party where they are in a minority, or where they would be in a minority if there were no plural voters. But that is no reason why the plural voter should not be abolished. The two things have no relation. It may be per- fectly right, I think it is, to urge that Redistribution is urgent and ought to be proceeded with at the earliest available moment. But at this time of the Session and in this Session, nobody really believes that this Bill is going to have a better chance of passing into law if we tie on to the Bill a Redistribution proposal. If these declarations, which my right hon. Friend has made, have an opportunity of being realised we shall be glad to welcome the co-operation of hon. Gentlemen opposite in our Redistribution proposals, and we hope their view of the way to do it will be a little fairer than it was in the year 1905.

8.0 P.M.


I do not intend to follow the Solicitor-General over all the points which he has covered. He seemed to think that the Government should take some credit to themselves, because, by the Home Rule Bill, they are going to take away from this House sixty Irish Members. But it is only by the fact that there is a surplus of Irish Members, more than Ireland by her population is entitled to, that they are able to produce or carry a Home Rule Bill at all. The object of this Clause is to say that the Government are not entitled to do away with one anomaly which happens to suit them, and to leave the grosser anomaly unredressed. The only way in which all these anomalies can be redressed is by a scheme of Redistribution. The right hon. Gentleman says, "We are going to do that, we have announced and the Minister of Education has announced, that a Redistribution scheme would be brought in." I thoroughly appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman means what he says if possible, but it is only an intention, and the reason why we want this limiting Clause put in is that the Government may not be able by some accident, quite apart from their intention, to carry out that intention. They may be, to use an expression well understood in this House, caught short and unable to deliver their goods. That is a very important consideration to the Opposition. A General Election may be sprung upon the country by some accident. It may come, as Lord Haldane said, like a thief in the night, and the plural voter will not be able to vote whilst the Government will not have redressed the other gross anomalies. The Under-Secretary for India in his speech seemed to take it for granted that this side of the House agrees that Ireland should be over-represented in this House, but it is purely from the fact that Ireland has these extra Members that the Government have been able to exist on that bench, and that is the real point. An hon. Member who recently spoke on the other side said he thought there was a real anomaly as between the two sides. What is that anomaly? In my opinion it is this, that England, which is equally interested in all the legislation now before the House, has something like forty Members short of its real quota, and Ireland, which is not more interested in any of the legislation before the House, has forty Members too many, counting eighty votes on a Division. It is absurd to say it is a question whether Ireland should not first be put into her right position. I believe that we shall never get proper representation until everybody is put upon an equality in this House. When that has teen brought about, then those hon. Members sitting on this side of the House will be perfectly ready to accept one man one vote, but it is begging the question to say that the Government are entitled to pass legislation to bring about one man

one vote without bringing about, at the same time, one vote one value. It is only by adopting this limiting Clause that the Opposition can feel quite safe that they will not be put at a disadvantage should a General Election come, because they are quite unable, after what we have seen in regard to the Preamble of the Parliament Bill and other Acts, to feel confident that the intention of the Government will necessarily be carried out. It is for these reasons, and not for any small anomaly between seat and seat, that I support the inclusion in this Bill of this limiting Clause. Neither the right hon. Gentleman nor the Under-Secretary for India have given to the Opposition any arguments to justify us in not pressing this proposal with all the force we can. It is impossible for the Government or anybody else to ensure that they will really put the whole question upon a fair basis before the appeal to the country comes. The Government would lose nothing by putting in this limiting Clause.

Question put, "That the Clause be read a second time."

The House divided: Ayes, 110; Noes, 240.