HC Deb 11 June 1917 vol 94 cc732-40

Postponed Proceeding resumed on Amendment to Question: "That this House approves of the Instructions appended to the Warrants appointing Commissioners to determine, for the purposes of the Representation of the People Bill, the number of members to be assigned to the several counties and boroughs in England and Wales and in Scotland, respectively, and the boundaries of such counties and boroughs and divisions thereof.

Provided that the Commissioners may depart from the strict application of these Instructions in any case where it would result in the formation of constituencies inconvenient in size or character, or where the narrowness of margin between the figure representing the estimated population of any area and the figure required for any of the purposes of these Instructions seem to them to justify such a departure.

Provided also that it be an Instruction to the Boundary Commissioners to have regard to electorate rather than population where it appears that the proportion of electorate to population is normal."

Which Amendment was, at the end of the Question, to add the words, "Provided that in carrying out these Instructions the Commissioners shall act on the assumption that proportional representation is not adopted."—[Colonel Sir H. Jessel.]


When the hon. Member for Chippenham moved the Adjournment of the House, moving, as an Amendment to the proposed Amendment, to add the words, "except in boroughs entitled on a basis of population to return three or more members," I was pointing out that those of us who have been advocating proportional representation have lately been somewhat at a loss to put our views at all fairly or even at all generally before the country. The country at the present moment is engaged in the crisis of its fate, and it is impossible for Any mere political movement or argument to attract the average elector. I know that our case for proportional representation is one that does need explaining to the electorate, and I admit in the ordinary way we would gladly have gone on a pilgrimage up and down the country to explain the merits of proportional representation. But, supposing I had gone out on an expedition of that character, could I, should I, ought I to have had an audience? I think not. The best of our electorate at the present time are abroad fighting for the nation. Others at home are mourning their dear ones or are anxious for their dear ones. Most minds at this moment cannot be attuned to a mere phase of politics, no matter how important it may be. Therefore, I admit, so far we have not been able to make our case known as we would have made it known in other times. But be that as it may, all those who are working for proportional representation take the opportunity of making their case known whenever possible. We have in this Debate, of course, an opportunity of putting our case fully before the House in a more extended way than we have been able to do up to now. We want to meet and refute criticism, and I gladly admit that the arguments put forward by the right hon. Member for St. Pancras and the hon. Member for Westminster were fair criticisms levelled against the scheme of proportional representation, even the partial scheme embodied in the Bill. I am glad to think both the speakers recognise that the time has gone by for speaking or arguing against proportional representation as if it were a fad of high-browed intellectuals. Those arguments are things of the past. After all, we have to look abroad, and what do we find? After all, in the small democratic countries of Europe, proportional representation is a thing they have either adopted a good many years ago, or a few years ago, or they have adopted it at the moment or are about to adopt it. Such countries as Sweden, Switzerland and Belgium have had proportional representation for a good many years. Holland and Denmark have just adopted, and Finland knows well what it is. If we turn to the greater democracies we find the same thing. Before the War, in 1914, proportional representation had been passed by an enormous majority in the French. Chamber, but it was hung up by the Senate, and if war had not intervened, proportional representation would have been the law of the land with our French Allies. Take the newest of our democracies, Russia. The other day I read that the leaders of the Russian Government have publicly made the statement that in the future organisation of the nation proportional representation would find a place.

We can also turn to what our enemies are doing—the two autocracies of Germany and Austria. If imitation is the since rest form of flattery, then our Conference has been paid that compliment by our German opponents. During the last couple of months the German Government as a sop to German public opinion has set up a Commission to report to the Reichstag somewhat on the lines of our Conference. That Conference met under the chairmanship of Herr Scheidemann, the well-known German Socialist leader, and the last representation made by that Commission was that proportional representation should be introduced at future elections for the Reichstag. I notice that some months ago the Austrian Emperor, speaking of possible reforms for the Empire, made the suggestion that in future there should be a measure of proportional representation, in order to make the Austian Chamber more representative of the feeling in every part of the Austrian Empire.

Then I turn to our own Dominions. We know that proportional representation was part of the electoral methods of Tasmania, and that it has been adopted in parts of South Africa. Only the other day Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, the well-known Unionist leader in South Africa, admitted that proportional representation was inevitable when the Union was formed some years ago. What is said now is that, granted that all the great empires I have mentioned bad adopted it, after all they are not the United Kingdom, and what may be good for those countries may not be good for the United Kingdom. After all, Ireland at one time was part of the United Kingdom, and we did once impose upon the Irish Senate and partly upon the Irish House of Commons proportional representation. We did that by vast and crushing majorities. The proposal that a limited scheme of proportional representation should be imposed on the Irish Lower Chamber was eventually carried by something like 250 votes to 60. The House will further recollect, when the Bill to amend the Home Rule Act of 1912 was before the Upper House, that an Amendment was inserted that proportional representation should be applied not in a limited form to the Irish House of Commons and to the Senate, but at every election for every single Member of the Irish Lower House. The Amendment was carried without a Division; as a matter of fact, two could not be found to tell against it. Of course, we know perfectly well that the War intervened, that the Amending Bill was dropped, and that the Amendment was never brought down here. If it had been, I suggest that it would probably have been incorporated in the Amending Bill. I have heard hon. Members say, "We do not mind the experiment being tried on the Irish dog, but we do not want it tried on us." That is the sort of remark which almost makes me a Home Ruler. You ought not to experiment on the Irish dog. We thought that proportional representation would be the best thing for the Irish Senate and in a limited way for the Irish House of Commons, and we did so not blindly, not selfishly, but after deliberation.

The hon. and gallant Member for St. Pancras (Sir H. Jessel) advanced one or two arguments against proportional representation with which I should like to deal. First of all, he told us that in a single-Member constituency a Member knew what the leaders on both sides wanted, and would play up to what they wanted, and they had some hold over his actions. The division he represented must be a wonderful division. If I were to say that I know what those who opposed my return want, it would be absolutely false. I should like to know, but I do not pretend to do so. All I know is that when I come to stand again they will oppose me, and in the meantime they are endeavouring to do their best to show that I am not a fit, and proper man to represent them. He then went on to speak of the expenses in these multiple-Member constituencies. What would happen to the unfortunate football secretary who wanted to get a subscription, and what would happen to a Member shot at, not from the present limited number of football secretaries, but from five times that number? I, like many other Members, occasionally indulge in shooting, and it is very hard to hit a single partridge, but when a number fly together you very often bring one down. So it will be under proportional representation. The football club secretary and the cricket club secretary will be able to fire, not at one, but at five Members, and if he cannot hit one out of five he must be a bad shot.

The hon. and gallant Gentleman adduced as an argument against proportional representation the difficulty of a Member in getting over the great extent of ground in one of these great divisions which is a multi-member constituency, and he said that it was very hard to get round one London borough. Again, there would not be only one partridge. There would be five partridges, probably six, going round covering the division, and putting forward their politics. It would not be possible for one candidate to go round 80,000, or 90,000, or 100,000 electors. Of course if he were on his own, so to speak, as a minority candidate for some minor cause, then he would have to do his best. He would not have to secure a majority of the electors, but merely his quota, and he would not go to those particular nests of voters where he thought he would get it in the easiest way. Ho would not try to cover all the ground. The hon. and gallant Member also told us that he had had no time to make up his mind on this novel suggestion. There he adduced what the Prime Minister said. That was also an argument put forward by the hon. Member for the Tamworth Division (Mr. Wilson Fox). Let me say to him that he is one of those very lucky people who have got into this House without a contest. In years to come he will have to fight, successfully, I hope, many hardly contested elections, and he will have to make up his mind upon a great many novel points during the course of those elections and answer them in such a way as will secure the votes of those whose suffrages he seeks. At present he is not called upon to give his opinion upon such questions as electoral reform or proportional representation. That argument is also a short-sighted and an unfair one. If we have had no time to give our minds to the subject, we ought not to impose proportional representation blindly on Ireland.

Another argument which has been advanced is that, if this scheme is to be adopted at all, it should be applied to the whole of the country. That is what we who are in favour of proportional representation say. We wish it could be done. But there is the scheme of Mr. Speaker's Conference, which recommends its partial application. We accept that partial application, although we would rather have it applied to the whole country. Hon. Members who oppose us say, and we admit it, that we are greatly weakening our case by this very partial application. It ought to be applied to Wales, to Scotland, and to the Home Counties, such as Kent and Sussex, where Liberal representation is practically unknown and the Labour man is hardly dreamed of. But we loyally accept the recommendations of Mr. Speaker's Conference as embodied in the Instructions given to the Boundary Commissioners. Then again, the hon. and gallant Gentleman said under proportional representation you do not get an accurate majority. It is certainly true that under our present system you get nothing like an accurate majority. Supposing we had had proportional representation in either of the 1910 elections you would not to-day be fighting a European War. The Liberal, Labour, and Irish parties got a majority of something like 120 or 130. The majority under proportional representation would have been something like thirty-eight, and with a majority of thirty-eight instead of 120 or 130 politics in Great Britain might have taken a very different course, and things not only in this country but in the world at large might have shaped themselves very differently. An hon. Member who earlier in the Debate said that though he did not believe in proportional representation, there was something to be said for the alternative vote, and he said proportional representation meant the elector writing one, two, three against certain names, which he could not do. After all,' what is the alternative vote? It is right on one, two, and perhaps right in one, two, three. It is really a very minor and very lopsided form of the transferable vote.


We are not now discussing the alternative vote. It arises on no part of this Motion.


Then there is one final argument which the hon. and gallant Gentleman used. He alluded to the Commission which last reported on proportional representation and other electoral systems of the country, and reported, though not unanimously, against proportional representation for the election of members of this House. I wish he had quoted a little further from that Report. He would have seen that the condemnation of the Commission was very luke-warm, and after all a very great deal of water has flowed under Westminster Bridge since the Report of that Commission. We shall have to elect another House of Commons. The country is agreed that we want a fair House of Commons, a tolerant House of Commons, and a large-minded House of Commons to deal with the tremendous problems we shall have to solve, and under proportional representation we shall give universities that fair representation, which will give them a chance of making their voice heard fairly for a settlement of these great problems. My proposal is merely that what I may call the corporate life of London shall, to a certain extent, be unchanged where it wishes it under proportional representation. For instance, it has been put before the House as an argument that it is unfair to compel Chelsea, which has its own, corporate life, to join, say, with Westminster or with Fulham, which have their own corporate life, and if you treat London as one entity, as one borough, and divide it into a number of constituencies returning three, five, or seven Members, of course you will take away its corporate life, which it has only won in the course of the last few years. My Amendment is put down to avoid that. I put it down on my own, without really consulting my Friends very much. For instance, Chelsea would be left as it is. Hammersmith would be left as it is. Kensington and Fulham would be left as they are. These would not come under proportional representation. But Islington, which is a borough returning four Members, would come under this scheme.




There is a Mayor of Islington, but there is not a Mayor of West, North or South Islington. Four Members are returned by Islington; therefore, it would come under our scheme of proportional representation as returning more than three Members. The same might be said of Camberwell, which returns three Members, and Southwark, which returns three Members. The sum of the result would be, so far as London is concerned, that there would be eight of these multiple-Member constituencies returning Members under proportional representation. The remaining seats in London, whether they be boroughs or parts of boroughs, would be single-Member constituencies. The same thing would apply outside London. Such cities as Wolverhampton, Birmingham and Leeds, would return Members under the system of proportional representation, but the majority of constituencies in the country would not be touched. I freely admit that for proportional representation advocates this is a compromise. It is not a very satisfactory compromise. The Bill itself is a compromise, and I put this compromise of mine down as a watering down of what the Conference recommended in order that it may perhaps remove the objection of certain London Members and certain Members outside. I trust it will be seconded and that the Committee will give it favourable consideration.


I beg to second the Amendment.


I am not a member of the Proportional Representation Society, and I cannot say that hitherto I have had any very fixed or convinced views in favour of that particular scheme. I think that I may be perhaps taken as an illustration of those Members who when they are brought face to face with the problem in a practical form and are compelled to look into it find their opinions hardening more in favour of this recommendation for the Conference. The more I consider it the more anxious I am to see the experiment tried in one shape or another. The hon. Member (Major Newman) has put forward an Amendment which does not make it more easy to discuss the whole question. I suppose it is an effort of sweet reasonableness on his part. I imagine it is an attempt to adopt a suggestion thrown out by the Home Secretary in recent Debate, where he suggested that the advocates of proportional representation should,- if possible, come to terms with their opponents on the understanding that the experiment should be tried with the great boroughs, but not in the London boroughs. If the opposition to proportional representation would be modified or pacified by the acceptance of the Home Secretary's suggestion then I think there might be something to be said for it. But what if it is not going to be accepted? I notice that one of the hon. Members identified with the opposition shakes his head, and therefore I presume he does not agree with the suggestion. Under those circumstances I am not quite certain that this is a very wise Amendment to put forward in this form. Perhaps on a night's consideration hon. Members may find more advantage in it than occurs to them at a moment's investigation. Hon. Members for London seem to me to be extremely easily satisfied with the working of the present system. It is quite true that the single-member system which prevails in London worked in 1910 as it happens by chance, in a manner which was not unfair as compared with the votes which have been cast, but under our present system of single-member constituencies a General Election is merely an agreeable mingling of skill and chance. It may be that the result of the election corresponds to the real balance of opinion. On other occasions it does not. In 1910, by some means which I cannot understand, the result in majority corresponded with the votes polled in London constituencies. You may get a result in one area which is right when the result over the whole country is quite wrong. That is part of the caprices which beset the system. But if you go back to the elections of 1895 and 1900 you will find that the Liberal Members in London suffered badly. In 1895 they ought to have had 25 members on votes polled and they only got eight. In 1900 they ought to have had twenty-four and they only got eight. On the next trial of strength it may easily happen that you will not get the results which you got in 1910, results in proportion to the votes polled. You may easily by a mere chance revert to the unfortunate experience of 1895 and 1892.

It being Eleven of the clock the Debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed to-morrow.