HC Deb 01 February 1944 vol 396 cc1154-92
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Herbert Morrison)

I beg to move, That this House welcomes the proposal of His Majesty's Government to set up a Conference on Electoral Reform and Redistribution of Seats and to invite Mr. Speaker to preside. In moving this Motion, I should, perhaps, make it clear that it will be my duty to give the House the historical background of the subject which we shall be discussing to-day and to indicate the scope of the matters which will be appropriate for consideration by Mr. Speaker's Conference. It is not part of my duty to argue controversially the various matters which will be down for consideration but merely to indicate what those subjects are. There is no reason, however, why, because Ministers, in advance of Mr. Speaker's Conference, should be circumspect and impartial in indicating the scope of the matters to be dealt with, Members in all parts of the House should not speak with full frankness and clearness in stating their views on what should be done. Indeed, part of the purpose of this two-day Debate is to enable all elements in the House to say what they think, and indicate the views they hold on the various matters which will come before the Conference over which, it is hoped you, Mr. Speaker, will preside. Perhaps it would be useful to the House if I indicated in a short summary what happened in connection with the Speaker's Conference which was set up in 1916. I think this was the first time that the device of a Speaker's Conference had been used for matters of this sort. I think everyone will agree that it was eminently useful, and a precedent which it would be well for the House to follow on this occasion. The terms of reference of the Speaker's Conference of 1916 were as follow: To examine and if possible, submit agreed resolutions on the following matters (a) reform of the franchise, (b) basis for redistribution of seats, (c) reform of the system of registration of electors, and (d) methods of elections and the manner in which the cost of the elections should be borne. The Conference was composed of five Members of the House of Peers and 27 Members of the House of Commons, selected by Mr. Speaker Lowther. The problems before that Conference were considerable in number, in importance and in complexity. There had been no Franchise Act since 1884 and woman suffrage at that time was, I would not myself say a difficult, but it certainly was a controversial, and for many politicians a rather dangerous subject which had to be faced and settled. There had been great pre-war struggles about it, but I think it can fairly be said that the part that women played in the last war was really the deciding factor that settled the argument and the principle of woman suffrage. That issue is now settled. There were many and varied qualifications at that time for the Parliamentary franchise and the law as to the compilation of the lists of electors was rather complex. There had been no redistribution since 1885. Consequently, the Conference had big and important issues before it. It did its work and reported in January, 1917, when it submitted to the House agreed resolutions for Parliamentary consideration, and it is satisfactory to observe that on this occasion its recommendations were embodied almost without alteration in the Representation of the People Act, 1918.

We got thereby a recasting of the electoral law on a comprehensive and considerable scale, and it is the law as embodied in that Act which is substantially the electoral law of to-day. These are the outstanding points which were changed—and they represented a considerable programme of change. The qualifying period was reduced from one year to six months. Fresh registers were to be published each Spring and Autumn and for some years that was the case. Two franchises were established other than the University franchise, the one based on residence and the other based on occupation of business premises, and these were substituted for all existing franchises. Women over 30 were enfranchised. Maximum limits to expenses of candidates were fixed at 6d. a head in counties and 5d. in boroughs. The local government franchise was reformed, and subject to a six months residence qualification, any person who occupied, as owner or tenant, any land or premises was entitled to be registered.

Finally, there was a scheme of redistribution based on two main principles, first that each vote should, as far as possible, command an equal share of representation in the House of Commons and, second, that the number of Members of the House should remain, substantially, as it was. However, that was not entirely achieved for, including the Irish membership of the House which then obtained, the total membership was increased from 670 to 707. Then there followed the work of the boundary commissioners in relation to redistribution, and the instructions to the boundary commissioners again were based upon Conference recommendations. Representation was to be based on population, with 70,000 as the standard unit for each Member, and counties or boroughs with less than 50,000 were to cease to have separate representation as a general principle. Boroughs or urban districts with 70,000 or more were to become separate Parliamentary boroughs. It was also recommended and decided that boroughs which were still entitled to return two Members, that is to say the double-Member constituencies, should still return two Members and remain undivided and there was a special saving for the ancient and historic city of London. The boundaries of constituencies were to coincide, as far as practicable, with the boundaries of administrative areas. These were, of course, subject to discretion to vary them in exceptional circumstances.

But there have been changes since. The Economy (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1926, abolished the Spring register and left us with only one register a year, that of the Autumn, but it reduced the qualifying period from six months to three, which was an improvement. The Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act, 1928, finally completed the enfranchisement of women and gave the vote to women between the ages of 21 and 30, which had hitherto been denied, and women got the Parliamentary and the local government franchise on the same terms and within the same age limits as men.

In 1929 there was another Speaker's Conference, which arose out of the Parliamentary situation of that day, with a minority Labour Government. In that case three Members of the House of Lords and 18 Members of the House of Commons were selected by Mr. Speaker, in relation to the party representation in the House of Commons. The main issue then was whether there should be Proportional Representation or the alternative vote, but that Conference was abortive and no agreed conclusions arose out of it There were other matters under consideration, such as the use of motor-cars, and as far as I can tell there was disagreement about nearly everything. This was a Conference which agreed about nothing, and consequently no action arose out of it.

Sir Herbert Holdsworth (Bradford, South)

There was a majority resolution.

Mr. Morrison

That may be, but I suspect that the majority was of such a character that it was difficult for His Majesty's Government to take action.

Sir H. Holdsworth

An alternative Bill was presented by the Government later.

Mr. Morrison

That may be. I will not go into all the hidden matters, but at any rate I am right in saying that no legislative action arose.

Sir Percy Harris (Bethnal Green, South-West)

Was not a Bill presented?

Mr. Morrison

The presentation of a Bill is not legislative action, but an attempt at legislative action, and nothing came of this. I would not enter into a dispute with my right hon. Friend unwittingly, but it was not action. Nothing happened, and the electoral law remained as it was. Many hon. Members urged before the out-break of war that redistribution should be prepared for in view of the admitted anomalies which existed in many parts of the country. This has happened partly owing to the transfers of industry before the war, and partly owing to slum clearance and other housing operations, and we agree that there is a case, which cannot be disputed, for the consideration of the problem of redistribution.

There were efforts on the part of hon. Members in various parties, including my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) and others, to secure an opportunity for the discussion of electoral reform and the setting up of a Speaker's Conference, and I gave undertakings on behalf of the Government that there should be an opportunity for discussion of electoral reform. I gave those undertakings as far back as 1940, repeated them in 1941, repeated them again in 1942, and made a firm promise in 1943—and here we are. It indicates how admirably His Majesty's Government carry out their pledges, pledges not only made once but made repetitively over a period of years. But it was necessary, before the various matters came to the stage of practical consideration, to get expert advice on the question of the machinery of elections, and there was set up under the chairmanship of the. Registrar-General, who, I think hon. Members will agree, was a very competent and able chairman, to whom they and I are indebted, a Departmental Committee on electoral machinery to consider electoral registration and the technical problems of redistribution. I should like to say how grateful I am to the members of that Committee for their admirable work and the advice which they gave.

We have already implemented the Report of that Departmental Committee so far as electoral registration is concerned. Their recommendations have been embodied in the Parliament (Elections and Meetings) Act of 1943. The second part, with regard to the redistribution of seats, has not yet been dealt with. This matter has to be considered in two parts: first the machinery and secondly the policy, that is to say, the directions to be given to the boundary commissioners as to the principles upon which they should act. Up to now it has been the case that redistribution has come along when the anomalies were sufficiently great—but not always then—and there was a sufficient degree of Parliamentary pressure and sufficient Parliamentary time to consider the problem. It has been a rather accidental and chaotic method, and the Departmental Committee recommended that there should be a permanent body of boundary commissioners. That does not mean a permanent body of fully paid people, but merely—and I think they were quite wise and sensible about this—certain designated officers in the Government service who would be constituted a boundary commission and who would deliberate from time to time, as and when expedient and necessary, and, for the rest, would get on with their work in relation to their functions in the Government service. By that means we should have in existence a body which, always subject to Parliamentary directions and Parliamentary approval and control, could review the electorate from time to time and make recommendations about redistribution. It clearly is not desirable that they should play about with the constituencies every other six months, but it is desirable that, instead of the whole mechanism of an active redistribution having to be started by some Government when it finds time or wants to do it, there should be a body observing the movements of population and from time to time, not too frequently, indicating to the Government that there was a primâ facie case for redistribution, in which case the Government would come to the House and consult the House, and then the machine could run.

Major Petherick (Penryn and Falmouth)

Was it the intention that the boundary commissioners should keep areas and constituencies under constant review, or was it the intention that they should at certain fixed periods, say five or ten years, examine those boundaries?

Mr. Morrison

I should think it was a bit of both. It would not be desirable that they should be sitting constantly. The Registrar-General's Department is aware of the movements of the population and would call attention to them, or they would ask for a report and, if there was a primâ facie case, would consider whether there was a real case for action and make recommendations to the Government. That seems to be the sensible machinery for handling the matter.

Mr. Keeling (Twickenham)

Does the right hon. Gentleman see any reason why we should not have redistribution automatically in every Parliament, as they do in some of the Dominions?

Mr. Morrison

That will always be in the hands of the House and the Government of the day. I am not disposed to think there ought to be fixed periods when redistribution must take place. The question ought to be examined factually from time to time to see how strong the primâ facie case for redistribution is. The Government, subject to any views Mr. Speaker's Conference may have, are disposed to think that is a right recommendation. We ourselves approve the recommendation of the Departmental Committee.

The next point is the policy, and—this is the real essence of the matter—the policy has to be embodied in directions to the boundary commissioners. Here one bets into all sorts of difficulties. I am sure it would be the wish of all parties in the House that when redistribution takes place it should be made fairly and equitably. As Home Secretary it is certainly my duty to be fair and impartial about the matter, but it is a tricky business. You can make a decision or give directions that may involve serious political repercussions which, maybe, you have not thought of or on the other hand they may involve such repercussions politically on one political party or another that the Home Secretary may be suspected. In any case, he is bound to be in an unhappy position, and if it can be avoided I do not think it is desirable that the principles of redistribution should be settled either directly by the Government or individually by any Minister of the Crown. Therefore, while I am not sure that it will come off, I hope myself that the Speaker's Conference, which will represent all political parties as far as practicable, will itself agree on the principles of redistribution, and the directions to the boundary commissioners, and if they do I shall be very grateful. It will save me a nasty job, an invidious job, and I think it is the way it should be done. The political parties should get round the table under Mr. Speaker and try amicably and fairly to settle the principles on which they should act. That is the way in which we propose that this matter should be handled.

Of course, legislation will have to follow to set up this standing machinery and to embody the directions which will be given to the boundary commissioners in deciding the various matters which are appropriate for their consideration. These principles will have to be carefuly considered. It does not follow that the principles decided upon in 1918 are necessarily appropriate for to-day, and it will be for the Speaker's Conference fairly and with a fresh mind to consider all those problems, but I think that by and large there will be acceptance in the House for the principle—as to which there can be a great deal of argument, and I have no doubt that hon. Members who are supporters of Proportional Representation will make the point—that each vote should as far as practicable command an equal share of Parliamentary representation, but even this is, of course, affected by other considerations, especially where in sparsely populated areas strict adherence to a fixed standard would result in constituencies of an unmanageable size. There are other considerations, such as administrative areas, county boundaries, municipal boundaries, which will call for consideration; and, therefore, whilst we aim at equal constituencies, it may be we shall not achieve that end in all respects.

The Conference will have difficulties. These are some of the problems it will have to consider. Population movements during the war make it hard to assess the population distribution after the war. Let us not underestimate that. It is not going to be an easy business to settle. I would give two instances which will present the Speaker's Conference with some hard thought. One is the case of what was a rural county Division in which a Royal Ordnance factory may have been built, possibly employing 20,000 people, all living more or less round about or as near as they can to it. One of the issues the Speaker's Conference will have to consider will be, Are those people going to settle there, or is the factory going to remain there and in action; or may it be that after the war the factory may be closed and the labour dispersed? In that case should they add that 20,000 factor to that constituency or ignore it? It is a nice one. I do not know the answer.

Another instance may be that of a heavily-bombed constituency in the East End of London with, perhaps, half, or more than half, of the electorate scattered about because their houses have gone, and further there will have been movements and transfers of labour under the directions of the Minister of Labour. You may have a constituency, you have indeed got them in the East End of London, and I dare-say in other parts of the country, in which a whole mass of the electorate have had to go out because their houses were destroyed. The electorate may be reduced to a half or even a third what it was pre-war. What are you to say? Are you to say this loss is permanent and therefore this constituency should be merged in the next one, or to say that these people will come back? They like their borough and a lot of them will. That is another nice one for the boundary commissioners and I wish them all good fortune and luck in studying these problems. I say these things not with a view of expressing any opinion or as a declaration of policy, but only to show that in the circumstances brought about by the war redistribution is easier said than done.

Sir Reginald Blair (Hendon)

Would my right hon. Friend agree that the anomalies in the East End of London existed long before the war started?

Mr. Morrison

I entirely agree. There was a decrease in the electorate in the County of London, not only in the East End, but in some other parts. On the other hand, there are some enormous constituencies and I entirely agree that a prima facie case for redistribution was well established before the war broke out. All I am saying now is that the war itself has added to the complexity of the problems with which Mr. Speaker's Conference will be faced.

Mr. Gallacher (Fife, West)

Is it not obvious from the examples which the right hon. Gentleman has given, that the Speaker's Conference will be in very great difficulty unless they consider this question of redistribution in relation to the Government policy of post-war reconstruction?

Mr. Morrison

There will certainly be difficulties, and, having uttered that note of warning, as far as the Government are concerned and, indeed, as far as I am concerned, the case for redistribution does not need to be argued. The case is strong and the Conference may be sure it will have sympathetic consideration by His Majesty's Government.

Another point that the Conference will have to consider is the future of the two-Member divisions—whether these double-barrelled constituencies should be continued or not. There are now 11 two-Member boroughs. The Conference will also have to consider whether constituencies should be redistributed on the basis of population, or on the basis of electorate, and it may be that they will come to the conclusion that we must move from the population basis of 1918 to an electorate basis, for it will be easier to know what the electorate is under our national registration machinery than to know what is the population. There is something to be said for the view that the electorate is more important in this respect than the population. That, again, is a matter for the Conference to decide. The Parliament (Elections and Meeting) Act, will, of course, be very helpful in providing information on the matter. Other matters which may well come before the Conference—and it is for the members themselves to decide upon the agenda—are some of those which were considered in 1929, relating to the reform of the franchise, both Parliamentary and local government, costs and conduct of elections and methods of elections. It is desirable, and I am sure the House will agree, that the members should seek the greatest common measure of agreement. The more they can agree, the fewer minority reports there are, and the fewer conflicts there are, the greater the service they will render to the House and to the Government, and I am sure that will be the spirit in which hon. Members who are members of the Conference will proceed.

We have given consideration to the terms of reference of the Conference, but the terms which we have drafted are not necessarily final, and we will consider them again in the light of this Debate. I will give them as a guide to the House, because I think the House has a right to know the mind of the Government on the terms of reference. But by all means let hon. Members make observations and suggestions and we will consider them before they are finally settled.

Sir P. Harris

Is it the Government's intention to make the terms of reference as broad as possible?

Mr. Morrison

My right hon. Friend will see that the terms are quite wide. I myself should not be disposed to sympathise with attempts to eliminate substantial subjects from the consideration of the Conference, and that is the view of the Government on the point. The draft terms of reference are these: To examine, and if possible submit agreed Resolutions, on the following matters:—

  1. (a) Redistribution of seats.
  2. (b) Reform of franchise (both Parliamentary and local government).
  3. (c) Conduct and costs of Parliamentary elections.
  4. (d) Methods of election."
I have already dealt with the first point—the redistribution of seats—and, if the Conference approves of the machinery proposals of the departmental committee, then the matter before it will be the principles to govern the directions to the boundary commissioners. Reform of the franchise would include consideration of the business premises vote, the university vote, and the assimilation of the Parliamentary and the local government franchise. Paragraph (c), as to the conduct and cost of the elections, would include the activities of outside agencies, the use of motor cars, the maximum expenditure of candidates and the amount of deposit, but this does not exclude other things from consideration. Paragraph (d), methods of election, would include proposals such as Proportional Representation and the alternative vote, but the list, as I have said, is not exhaustive.

With regard to Proportional Representation and the alternative vote, it would not be right for me to express any Ministerial opinion about their merits. I think it can be said that whatever may have been the case in the days of Gladstone, who made some observations on the point—and who confessed that he did not understand the matter very well—owing to extensive propaganda and, indeed, to experience in a number of ways of Proportional Representation, hon. Members in all parts of the House understand the proposal pretty well. I think that the Proportional Representation Society, whose most persuasive secretary is an admirable propagandist, who certainly loses no opportunity to expound the doctrine, have helped people to understand it very much better than in earlier days. Therefore, there should be no difficulty in discussing that subject and coming to conclusions. Many people have opinions about it already. I have opinions myself, which I expressed in 1924, but I would not venture to expound them to-day. It is much easier to argue about the subject now, because it is established how the system works and there is a basis of machinery.

When Mr. Gladstone spoke in this House in reply to Mr. Leonard Courtney who was, perhaps, the pioneer of Proportional Representation, he confessed his inability to grasp the mathematics and essentials of the proposal. This was in 1885, and he said, very frankly and modestly: My hon. Friend has addressed the House with, an ability which never fails him, and with a fervour and sincerity of enthusiasm which has inspired life into what I might almost call, but for the effect of his speech, an army of dry bones. But my hon. Friend made a remark of which I acknowledge justice in regard to my own speeches on this subject. Of those speeches he said he found no traces there of an extensive studying of the electoral systems of other countries, or of the application of a system or science of comparative politics to the elucidation of this subject. Sir, that is perfectly just, and I can tell my hon. Friends that I am quite conscious of my inability to grapple with details as in former years I might have been in some degree perhaps confident to do. There were cries of "No, no,"—the "grand old man" was much admired—and he went on: I beg pardon. I am very much obliged to my hon. Friends who decline to admit: that inability, but I am too conscious of it, and the record of nature and lapse of time are facts too stubborn to be confuted even by the most kind and indulgent partiality. I should not have arisen to enter into this debate—I should have left it, as I proposed to leave the general discussion of the Bill, to other and younger and abler men—had it not been for the personal portions of the speech of my hon. Friend. Much has taken place since then and I think there is a much wider knowledge of the Proportional Representation proposals.

With regard to the timing of the various items on the agenda of the Speaker's Conference it is proposed that if the Conference agree, the question of redistribution should receive prior consideration. If redistribution is to take place, then the sooner it starts the better, because there is not much time to spare and a great deal will have to be done, and we will indicate to the Conference that redistribution is of particular urgency. The next question is whether methods of election such as Proportional Representation affect redistribution. It can be argued both ways, but if the Speaker's Conference comes to the conclusion that the adoption of a system of election such as Proportional Representation would have implications on redistribution, then we would ask that that too should be considered in the early stages of the Conference. The next subject that we would like to be dealt with early is the proposal indicated by the departmental committee that there should be a merging of the Parliamentary and local government franchise, because if the existing system continues, then that affects the date of resuming municipal elections. It is clear that we cannot have elections under the existing local government franchise until we have the man-power and the time to make a special register. If the Speaker's Conference recommends that there should be a merging of the Parliamentary and local government franchises, then the date of the municipal elections can be accelerated because the register will exist in the form of the Parliamentary register. We, therefore, ask the Speaker's Conference to give early consideration to that matter as well.

As to the procedure for setting up the Conference, we propose that it shall be substantially as it was before. We propose that a letter should be sent by the Prime Minister to you, Mr. Speaker, asking you to preside over the Conference. I am sure the House will be glad to know, Sir, that, unofficially, I have already approached you, and that you are willing to preside. I am sure we are all extremely grateful. I have only done the unofficial part. The Prime Minister will do the official part and the letter will draw attention to the desirability of early reports on the subjects I have just indicated.

I think both the object and the method of handling these difficult and possibly contentious matters, will commend themselves to the House. It is only right that in this Session of Parliament, in which we hope to devote ourselves to problems of reconstruction of one sort or another—and I hope it will be a prolific Session—we should be preparing also for the future Parliament which the country at some appropriate time will elect.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir Assheton Pownall (Lewisham, East)

Is it intended that membership of the Conference should be constituted as in 1916 or as in 1929?

Mr. Morrison

There were peers in both cases. This is, of course, a matter for Mr. Speaker, but it would be appropriate that their Lordships' House should have representation upon the Conference.

Earl Winterton (Horsham and Worthing)

The right hon. gentleman has made a rather serious constitutional point. If their Lordships' House do not agree with the views of this House on this matter, this House, under the Parliament Act, can pass a Bill over their heads.

Mr. Morrison

On the other hand, it would mean the postponement of any legislative action. Whatever views Members may have about the House of Lords it is appropriate that the precedents followed both by the Labour Government in 1929 and by the Coalition Government in 1916 should be followed, but the composition of the Conference will be a matter for Mr. Speaker. While Parliament is preparing for future electoral arrangements, I am sure that the House will agree when I express the hope that the people themselves are also preparing their minds and thoughts for the great responsibilities which they will have to face as citizens at future elections. I hope they will recognise that Governments alone cannot do everything, but that the people must play their part in making their contribution to political discussions and wise electoral results.

Our problem will be simpler than the problems of many other nations. The problems that will face the governments of occupied territories will be very complex and serious, and we may be thankful that those problems will not face us. It is as well, of course, that from time to time we should overhaul our machinery on matters that are fundamental in a democratic community. It is probable that this Conference will not lead to legislation of the magnitude of that of 1918, because the issues which were dealt with then have left a smaller and somewhat more modest agenda than was the case in the last war. We have now emerged as a great democracy with universal franchise, and a modern electoral organisation, and the issues, therefore, are not so great.

I am sure the House will agree that a Speaker's Conference is the right way to deal with this matter. It is interesting to note that it is a comparatively modern device. The only previous tines when it has been used were, I think, in 1929 and 1916. I have read the speech of Mr. Walter Long, as he then was, in which he proposed the setting up of the Speaker's Conference on electoral reform in 1916. It looks to me as if he went about the proposal very gingerly, in view of the rather long single sentence which I will quote, and the care with which he moved along step by step to see whether he was taking the House with him. In this very long sentence he said: I myself believe that if we agreed amongst ourselves, and the Government offered any assistance which they could, and which, I believe, they would gladly do, to set up—I will not say a Committee, because that is not exactly what I mean—hut a representative Conference, not only of parties, but of groups, a Conference which would really represent opinion on these three subjects: electoral reform, revision of your electoral power when you have got it, and registration, I believe—and I do not speak altogether out of books—that such a Conference of earnest men, holding strong views, bitterly opposed to each other, if they were face to face with these difficulties, when we are all longing with a great longing to see something of a better prospect for our country in the future, would produce an agreed system for all three questions upon which the great mass of opinion of the people of this country could come together."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th August, 1916; col. 1949, Vol. 85.] It is clear that he was being careful as he went along. What he said was, however, acceptable to the House.

I hope very much that the deliberations of the Conference will be successful and amicable. We all hope, Mr. Speaker, that you will accept the invitation to preside over the proceedings. We have the utmost confidence in your impartiality, tact, judgment and knowledge. I am sorry to have to propose this addition to your already onerous duties, but we shall be very grateful if you undertake it. The House will, I am sure, wish you and the members of the Conference success in your deliberations. I think I have covered the ground and I hope that the general indication of procedure which I have explained will comend itself to hon. Members in all parts of the House.

Mr. Woodburn (Stirling and Clackmannan, Eastern)

The right hon. Gentleman has referred to the reform of the electoral system in regard to this House and to the fact that Members of the House of Peers may sit on the Commission. Will any consideration be given to the reform, either the abolition or the reconstruction of that House and its method of composition?

Mr. Morrison

These matters would not come within the scope of the Speaker's Conference. As to the number of Peers on the Conference, I have said that the appointment of any Peers and if so the number will be a matter for Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Edmund Harvey (Combined English Universities)

Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that, while it is expected that the Conference will be composed of representatives of all parties in the House, it is hoped that no members will go with final and fixed decisions to the Conference, but that they will go with the intention of achieving the best results?

Mr. Morrison

It is clear that hon. Members must listen to each other in the discussions in the Conference, as we do here in Debate, but this is a matter in which it would be rather unreal not to expect Members to have opinions before they start talking.

Mr. Gallacher

The Minister said that all parties would be represented in the Conference. Then he added, "as far as practicable." Can he tell us what he means by that?

Mr. Morrison

That had better be argued with Mr. Speaker through the usual channels.

Sir Herbert Williams (Croydon, South)

I cordially support the Motion which has been admirably proposed by the Home Secretary. His objective and impartial description of the problem will be helpful to everyone. I also heartily endorse what he said about you, Mr. Speaker. We know that you are impartial and we are equally certain that if you accept the invitation, you will be very busy. With regard to redistribution, about which I wish to say more than on other matters, I think that we would be unwise to come down to precise details. What we want to do is to try to give broad hints to the Speaker's Conference. In other words, we want to help them in their approach to the problem and in their objective. I am satisfied of one thing which we can hope for, and that is that none of the parties will try to gerrymander. Every party that has tried to gerrymander in the past has failed, and the other side has won the election. It is extraordinary that the results of a reform of the franchise are nearly always opposite to what the reformers anticipated. There is something curious about our people in that the more you try to regiment them the less you succeed. I hope, therefore, that those who go on the Conference will try to get what will give us the best results for the nation, irrespective of party. I am not suggesting that people should go on the Conference entirely in white sheets, because that would be silly, but, in the main, I do not believe that any party will get an advantage by trying to shape things in a way that will suit them at the next election, for they might not suit them at elections thereafter. We have seen many examples of that.

The Home Secretary has admitted the case for redistribution. It is an overwhelming case. That one person should represent ten times as many people as another is really a farce. We had Rom-ford as the outstanding argument prior to 1918, but it is now No. 2. Hendon is No. 1. Romford was broken up into four after the last election and it has now become the second largest constituency represented by one Member. Although the case for redistribution is overwhelming, do not let us be too arithmetical. I am not one who wants to see the country broken up into precisely equal squares of population. That would be wrong in every way, because, after all, a constituency is a community. We all get many letters from our constituents, and it is curious how many start off with the same words, and they are words which please me. These letters begin, "As a member of your constituency." This I interpret as, "As a member of the Club of which you are President." That is the opening that I like. When I read it I feel that the writer and I are associated in a joint enterprise, irrespective of whether he voted for me or not. I am not concerned about that because once we are elected we represent our constituents. The public outside think that being a Member of Parliament is a political job and a controversial job, but nine-tenths of our work has nothing to do with controversial politics. It is looking after the troubles of the great mass of the people in our constituencies. It is that human aspect of politics which is so attractive. I am always annoyed with newspapers which say that M.P.'s have had a three weeks' holiday. There is no holiday for M.P.'s, whether the House is sitting or not, and it is time the newspapers stopped this silly misleading talk about what are the duties of Members of Parliament. What is even worse, these silly stories are repeated by journalists who know that what they say does not represent the life of an M.P. I make this protest because this seems to be a good opportunity to do it.

We must take into consideration the community life of our constituencies. On looking through the list of constituencies I see that there are quite a number with electorates of about 35,000, but it would be a mistake to arrange constituencies according to arithmetical equality. They are communities with their own life, their own football teams. The team of one of them may be in the First Division of the League, and that makes an element in the community. If the team wins the English Cup it is the duty of the M.P. to receive them, together with the brass band and the mayor. It is all part of the communal life of our country and we should not forget it. We must take the population into account, of course, but it must not be the determining factor. Questions of geography must also be taken into account. The Orkney and Shetland Islands could not possibly be incorporated with a mainland constituency. There is a constituency in Scotland which has an area of 7,000 square miles, which is about one-twentieth of the area of the United Kingdom. Obviously a constituency like that, with a relatively small electorate, has to be kept together because, although it is a great area, it is nevertheless a community inhabited by a certain number of clans, and they have a communal life. We have to take into account local government boundaries. The boundaries of Parliamentary and municipal areas should as far as possible be coterminous. It is sometimes forgotten that Members of Parliament are human beings. (HON. MEMBERS: "No.") Yes, it is true. A human being has a certain limited capacity for work, and a constituency is entitled to be represented in the sense of being visited by the Member. That is a factor which has to be taken into account.

All these things must be borne in mind when the Boundary Commission gets to work. I am glad to hear from the Home Secretary that the Government have come down in favour of a permanent electoral commission. I pat myself on the back, for it is 30 years since I first started to advocate this. I incorporated it in a private Bill in 1933, and I was delighted when the Registrar-General's Committee virtually adopted my proposal of eight or nine years ago. Therefore, on that issue I feel delighted that I have at last succeeded in converting my right hon. Friend and his distinguished colleagues to a point of view which I have held for 30 years. It shows how difficult it is for a progressive minded person to reform a reactionary, but something happens eventually, if you only go on trying long enough.

The redistribution problem is much simpler than it would appear at first sight. A very great part of the country will not be disturbed in the slightest, whether the redistribution is complete or only partial. I use those terms because the right hon. Gentleman has referred to the uncertain position of the future population in many areas. There may be a tenth of the population in the Forces. I am not disclosing any information to the enemy in giving that figure, because I do not know the facts, and am only making a guess. There is a smaller percentage which has been directed away from home by the Minister of Labour and a larger number who have directed themselves away, as a result of the bombing activities of the enemy. So future populations are unknown in a great many cases, even to any degree of approximation, but that does not alter the broad problem, which is brought about by the growth of population in the outer suburbs of great cities, and more particularly of London. Look at the outer suburbs of London. Take, for example, Surrey. Probably Wimbledon and Epsom will want some attention. I have not looked up the figures, but in Middlesex the same is true of Hendon and Harrow and probably of Twickenham.

Mr. Keeling


Sir H. Williams

And also Uxbridge. In Essex, Romford is outstanding and, I think, Ilford. Epping, of course, comes at once to mind. If we halve the Prime Minister's constituency it will give him a little more time for his duties as Minister of Defence. In Hertfordshire, the first constituency to be dealt with would probably be that which was represented by Sir Francis Fremantle. In Kent, Bromley looks as though it was ripe for some operation. All round London, some 20 new constituencies will be created. Even my old borough of Croydon will probably get three Members. Part of our municipality is outside the Parliamentary area. The borough looks ripe for three Members and I shall have a very much larger area: [An HON. MEMBER: "If you are elected."] I shall get in easily. I shall be justified then in joining the National Farmers' Union.

If we are to do all this, we must not be tied down by the thought that there is anything magic about having 615 Members. There is no rigidity about the number. I have been looking through the list of the redistributions since 1832 and I found very marked changes. In 1885, which I think was the last redistribution prior to 1918, the membership was fixed at 670 and that figure stood until the last redistribution but one, when it was made 707. It was never effectively 707, because the Countess Marciewicz never came over, so we never saw our first woman Member of Parliament. At the last redistribution it was made 615. If the redistribution is to be carried through with the minimum of friction—the first post-war redistribution—we shall have to assume that there will be an addition to the total membership. Otherwise certain constituencies may have to be wound up, in the sense of being amalgamated with others. There will be a measure of uncertainty as to the future population which would make one hold back in some places.

We now get into the area of nationalism. As far as I know, there are no binding treaties as to the relative shares in this Chamber of the four countries which make up the United Kingdom, that is to say, England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It seems, from a study of the figures, quite certain that there will be some addition to the English membership, provided that the principles that I have in mind are carried out. I think there will be an addition of 20. That is my guess. In Scotland, I think there will be no change. There looks to be only one constituency which ought to be subdivided. There ale a number of rather small Scottish constituencies, most of which ought to be left undisturbed. Wales, again, largely no disturbance, except, I think in Flintshire, where there ought to be two Members instead of one. In Cardiff I think there should be some rearrangement.

There is one extraordinary position in Wales which I think we shall leave alone, although it ought later to be dealt with, and that is what I may call the oases of Carnarvonshire. The right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) represents a most strange constituency. It starts off with Llandudno. Then you pass through an area of quarries, represented by his son-in-law once removed. Then you get to the historic and ancient city of Bangor, and then to another part, represented by the other member of the family. Then you go on to Carnarvon, with its castle, of which I think the right hon. Gentleman is Constable, although I do not know what the duties are. I do not think they include firewatching. Then you come to another town, the name of which I have forgotten. The whole thing is spread over some 50 miles, and in between are areas of the county. Logically, you should cut the county in two, but I do not think we should do that as long as the right hon. Gentleman wants to remain the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs. We shall not bisect or dissect his constituency. I am reminded of Anglesey, but that is a coherent and complete county and it ought to remain for all time. It is a strange little place, which has put itself on the map by inventing a very long title for its first railway station. The title describes the charm and beauty of the village, including two churches. Perhaps the hon. Lady who represents it will tell us the name of it. I believe that Llanfair P.G. is the official abbreviation.

I come to the controversial issue of Proportional Representation. I am one of the few people who have been twisted out of a seat in Parliament by Proportional Representation. It did not bias my mind, because I did not like Proportional Representation before. Anyone who examines the detailed results of the 1918 election for the Combined English Universities will find a curious situation. Mr. H. L. A. Fisher got an enormous vote. He had passed his Education Act, raising the pay of teachers and giving them pensions. There is a very large number of teachers in this constituency, and naturally he got a very big vote. There were also two Conservative candidates and a Labour candidate. I was one of the Conservatives and the late Lord Conway was the other. I had more Conservative votes than Lord Conway and more official Labour support, but I was not elected.

Mr. Molson (The High Peak)

Does the hon. Member suggest that the electors were wrong?

Sir H. Williams

I do not, but one would think that under Proportional Representation, the object of which is to ensure that each party has a proper show, Conservatives would be able to decide what Member they were going to have. It is probably just as well that I did not represent an academic place of learning, because it is so dull. That constituency is now represented by two friends of mine. Let us look at them, in the political sense. They are both Liberals. They call themselves Independents. They sit for a constituency where, judging by a series of elections, more than half the voters are Conservatives and substantially more than a quarter belong to the Labour Party. The result, under Proportional Representation, is that two Liberals calling themselves Independents sit for a constituency where three-quarters of the voters belong to another party.

Mr. E. Harvey

May I point out that one of the present Independent Members was returned at a by-election and that at the last General Election one Member returned was an Independent and the other was a Conservative?

Sir H. Williams

I agree that one Member was elected at a by-election. The circumstances at that time were a little unusual but it was a straight vote for the moment. I am just describing its present representation. I hope that Universities will continue on a basis of Proportional Representation, which is easy to run, because the electors vote by post. They are supposed to be a reasonable and well-educated crowd. There is no secret vote. It is all very pleasant. As the papers come in you can look at them and find out how everybody votes. I remember that one professor sent me a most hearty letter of support, so I looked at his ballot paper when it came in. No. 1 on his paper was somebody to whom he had never said a word. His No. 2 was somebody whose manifesto he had signed, but he had put me, to whom he had written that hearty letter of support, as No. 3. So professors are not as honest as they might be.

Nevertheless, the University Members bring to this House a great wealth of knowledge and experience which should not be done away with. I think that Parliament has seldom had a better team of University Members, with scholarship, poetry, imagination, zoology; Liberals sitting as Independents, Conservatives sitting as Independents, Labour fellows of every variety, and a Welshman who spells his name in Welsh style instead of the accustomed English style. They are a good team, and I say that without joking. They play a first-class part in the work of this House, one as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and one who is generally in New York or Washington and runs ships. He represents the home of lost causes, Oxford University. There is another Liberal who is here as an Independent. The only thing I do not like about the University representation is the dishonest effect it appears to have on the politics of its Members, because none of them comes out in his true colours. They all describe themselves as something different from what they are, including the Senior Burgess for Oxford University (Petty Officer Herbert) who is at heart a Tory but sits in this House as an Independent.

So far as ordinary people are concerned, give me enough money and a system of Proportional Representation, and I will elect any people you wish. The system is more open to corruption than any system I know. All you have to do is to subsidise a number of Independent candidates, collecting all the crank votes, and advise all the people to give their second preference to yourself.

Sir H. Holdsworth

Cannot that be done under the present system?

Sir H. Williams

No. There is no law which forbids a candidate to pay his opponent's election expenses, and so to corrupt the electorate; but there is no advantage in doing so. The only purpose of if is to transfer votes that are against you and that might be put as number two on somebody else's paper. The intolerable thing about it is the effect it has upon the relationship between the Member and his constituency. In my case I should have to represent North Croydon, South Croydon and probably East Surrey as well. There are 200,000 electors in that area and if they had to have four Members of Parliament it would not diminish the work which each Member had to do, such as looking after the public engagements and the correspondence of a quadruple constituency. There would be no sense of unity between each Member and the constituency. Proportional Representation only attracts those who for the moment think they can get in, and that without it they will lose their seats. That is the reason why the Liberal Party at the moment support Proportional Representation. Without it they will lose their seats. It is pure gerrymandering, and so far as I can I shall do all I can to resist it.

I do not think that the business vote should be abolished. Superficially it seems wrong that a person should have more than one vote, but it really affects only a few constituencies—the City of London and the central Divisions of one or two of our large cities. The conduct of industry by whoever conducts it is an important factor in our national life, and it seems desirable that the point in view of those responsible for the conduct of industry should have some kind of show—not an outstanding show. The business vote is not the vote of big business. Big business is in big limited companies, and they are not enfranchised under the business vote. The business enfranchised is that of the solicitor or that of the modest-sized shop-keeper and small shop-keeper. There are a number of people like those who work in the City of London and live outside and who work in the Central Division of Manchester and live in the suburbs. These moderate business men and small business men who are enfranchised do give to a few constituencies a weight of influence of a right kind.

After all, the trade union movement to-day is highly organised. There is a weight of influence in the House speaking from the point of view of the employee. I do not think it is unreasonable that there should be a special weight of influence, though smaller, speaking on behalf of those who are employers. There is nothing wrong in interests being able to put forward their points of view. To remove the business vote would destroy these constituencies, because in some cases the constituency left would be so small that it would have to go. As it is right that the Miners' Federation, through their branches up and down the country, should take steps to provide in this House a substantial miners' vote to defend and safeguard a specific vested interest—let us be quite honest about it—it is not unreasonable that, to a very much smaller extent, what might be called the vested interests of the employer class should have one or two constituencies where it has special weight.

Mr. G. Strauss (Lambeth, North)

Does the hon. Member consider that the weight of vested interests and the viewpoint of employers are not adequately represented in this House under the present system?

Sir H. Williams

It is true there are a number of employers who are Members of the House, but to say "Speaking on behalf of those I represent, the voters of the City of London" is a different thing from an individual getting up as a cotton manufacturer or some other employer. In the former case the Member has an authoritative voice, he is a collective voice, the same as a man who represents a mining constituency and can say, for example, "Speaking on behalf of the miners of Durham."

Mr. Bowles (Nuneaton)

Is the hon. Member aware that it is possible for a man and his wife to have between them eight votes?

Sir H. Williams

Between us my wife and I have six votes, but we can use only four. A man and wife with eight votes can use only four. In a General Election one can vote in respect of one's residence and in respect of one's business premises, if they are in a different constituency, or, alternatively, if one is a university graduate one can vote for the university, but one cannot vote both in respect of the university and the business premises. If a by-election comes along one can vote in any place in which one is registered. Surely that is not an unreasonable thing, that if a man has a definite interest in more than one place he should be allowed to use such influence as he has got in a by-election. Do not let it be thought that plural voting affects only Conservatives. There are plural voters in all parties. I do not see any reason why it should be done away with. I think there is a first class case for it to be continued. It affects only a few constituencies. It would be a farce, much as I like policemen, much as I respect charwomen; that they should be the only electors in the City of London.

I think we should reduce the costs of elections. Quite honestly, I want to see the costs of elections very much reduced. I know that a great deal of election expenditure in the past has been sheer waste from the point of view of any electoral dividend there has been. There is a tradition of extravagance. Elections bring out hangers-on who think they should be paid a lot for doing little. If we were stopped from being able to pay them this type would vanish. There is a certain type of trader who thinks election time is a time to get a little trade; booking fees for halls are at a high rate. If we cut down the cost all that will go, and we shall at the same time open the door of opportunity to a great number of people who have been debarred from seeking service in this House unless they had to take the pay of their own party up to a point. The less people are subsidised by their own party machine the better. I must pay this tribute to the Conservative Party machine. I have, in my earlier elections, had some help, but never have I found them hinder me in the slightest degree in the House. The Conservative Party is in this respect, I believe, the freest party in this country. I have behaved badly from time to time in criticising my own side, but I have never got into any trouble.

There are some laws against corrupt and illegal practices, which were passed in the days When bribery and corruption were possible because of the limited size of the electorate. Bribery and corruption have been banished, not by good laws, but by big electorates. Nobody can bribe 80,000 electors with his own money. We now bribe at somebody else's expense, by promises of the good laws we shall pass if we are elected. There are under this head offences which are quite trivial but for which the penalties are very heavy. I think these might be overhauled in the light of the completely changed circumstances since they were passed.

On the question of absent voting I think it should be made as easy as possible for people to exercise the franchise. If a person is ill, and by ill I mean temporarily sick or infirm, I do not think he ought to have to go to the polling station. I think there ought to be devised a system of absent voting, not merely by being permanently on the register, but as an absent voter for a particular election. Provided that we must have safeguards against fraud I think registration officers should be much more elastic regarding their powers under "the existing Act." I have always exploited" the existing Act." I live in Westminster, but on the grounds that it might be difficult for me to be at the polling station in Westminster I am registered as an absent voter in Westminster. I have a house just outside the constituency of the Noble Lord the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton). There I am registered as an absent voter, and at the University I am registered as an absent voter. In each case I exercise my right of voting by post. I find it very convenient. [Interruption.] If by-elections were held at all three I could use all three votes. It is a convenience that I want to be widely extended. Make it easier for people. We should not then have the necessity for vast numbers of motor cars to carry our opponents to the poll, especially when my right hon. Friend is organising the opposition. He always told them "Ride in the Tory cars and vote against them." If we can do away with cars my right hon. Friend's supporters will have to walk at the next L.C.C. election.

Though I have followed the right hon. Gentleman, who, in one sense, was speaking for the Government and speaking impartially, I cannot claim to be speaking for the Conservative Party, but I believe from the discussions I have had with various people that the points of view I have put forward to-day represent the average point of view of the Conservatives in this House. I do not believe that this Conference should involve a wrangle at all. I believe there is sufficient community of outlook in all parties in the House for the Conference to come to its conclusions easily, except perhaps in connection with Proportional Representation. On other matters I think the Conference should have an easy passage and I wish it well.

Sir Herbert Holdsworth (Bradford, South)

I like to think we can all agree on one point, that we all welcome the appointment of the Speaker's Conference. I wish to make one or two comments on the Home Secretary's speech. First of all, with regard to the terms of reference, I hope those terms will be drawn as widely as ever possible. I sat on the Departmental Committee dealing with electoral machinery, and I do not think I am saying anything that I should not say in mentioning that at the first meeting we had difficulty with the terms of reference. Having also sat on select committees and so on, I think we all have had that experience. I beg the right hon. Gentleman to make the terms as wide as ever possible. The only other reference I want to make is to the quotation he read from Mr. Gladstone. Some of us smiled, because Mr. Gladstone was candid enough to admit in that speech that he did not fully grasp all the details of Proportional Representation. That is not peculiar to 1870, or whenever it was. Many of the Members of the present House to whom I talk have not the slightest idea what Proportional Representation is, and so many of the people who criticise it are in that position. I shall refer later to a speech I made in 1933 on this very subject, when the right hon. Gentleman who is now the Deputy Prime Minister replied on behalf of the Labour Party and made it quite clear in his speech that he had not the slightest idea of what Proportional Representation meant. Many suggest that the chaos in France was caused by Proportional Representation. The fact is that they have never had it.

Sir H. Williams

I remember being in Paris during one of their General Elections which was conducted under Proportional Representation, not of the precise kind which Mr. Humphreys advocates. There were 20 candidates for one constituency who had a meeting, at which they all spoke.

Sir H. Holdsworth

The hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. They have never had a system of Proportional Representation. I would like to ask Members of this House whether they would spend a little time really considering what the question is. I wish to refer to one or two things the hon. Member said. He began his speech by saying that he hoped that no party would go into this Conference with the idea of gerrymandering. I say "Amen" to that. We ought to go into that Conference, that is those of us who are asked to serve in it, with the objective view of assuring that when it has reached its conclusions it shall suggest principles and policies that will give the electorate the best system of electoral machinery, machinery that would give effect to the votes cast. I was awfully disappointed when he went on later to charge the Liberal Party with being concerned with gerrymandering. It is not true. Let us be quite frank about this: the Liberal Party has not an adequate representation in this House, according to the votes cast for Liberalism. It is not gerrymandering to ask that there should be a system which gives fair and adequate representation, not merely for Liberal views but for any particular views which the electorate may desire. What right have you to try to compartmentalise minds into Conservative and Labour, or any other? We are supposed in this country to enjoy free speech, free thought, freedom of expression. What right has the hon. Gentleman to suggest that a party, which believes in its principles and suggests that it is not getting a fair crack of the whip, is gerrymandering?

Sir H. Williams

The point is that the belief in this doctrine arose only when the Liberal Party were the sufferers under the present method.

Sir H. Holdsworth

I agree. I think that the Liberal Party made a great mistake in the past, and I believe that the hon. Gentleman's own party may be in the same position one day. The hon. Gentleman made reference to arithmetical niceties. I agree with him to some extent about that, but, generally speaking, there ought to be arithmetical representation. You have to make provision for such places as the Orkneys and Shetlands and so on, but do not let us draw that out too far. The idea of electing parties is not that each party should get a proper share of the seats, but that each vote should count for something. Let us consider the question of corruption. I have a great regard for the hon. Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams), but he contradicted himself in the latter part of his speech. He said, "If you give me enough money, under Proportional Representation, I will so manipulate the electorate that they will send me back." Later he said, "What has done away with corruption is not good laws but the big electorate." Then he denounces Proportional Representation because it would extend the electorate.

Sir H. Williams

My point is that the large electorate makes it impossible to corrupt the electors, but with Proportional Representation there is no need to corrupt the general body of the electorate, you have merely to corrupt a few candidates.

Sir H. Holdsworth

The hon. Member is contradicting himself again. He pointed out that if a man promised to support him, only under an open ballot could he see whether the man had gone back on his promise. What guarantee has he that the vote would be given in accordance with the promise? All that is mere idle twaddle. I am bound to admit that on this question of Proportional Representation I cannot speak for all the Members who sit on this Bench: some of them do not agree with Proportional Representation. But in this House some years ago I moved a Motion in these terms: That, in order to ensure in future Parliaments a greater correspondence between the strength of opinion in the country and representation in the House of Commons, it is desirable to reform the present system of Parliamentary elections."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th December, 1933; col. 1725, Vol. 283] That Motion was defeated. I believe that, with the exception of the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton), not a single Labour Member voted for it. One or two enlightened Conservatives voted for it, but no Member of the Labour Party; and the present Deputy Prime Minister, who answered for the Labour Party, spent the whole of his speech in denouncing the Liberal Party. He never tackled the merits, or otherwise, of the Motion, but was concerned, like the hon. Member for South Croydon, in denouncing the Liberal Party. The Motion was defeated, but the problem remains. There is no representation in this House corresponding to the votes cast in an election. I want to appeal to the best motives, not to the question of whether this is going to be in favour of the Conservative Party at one election and the Labour Party at another but to see how we can complete the structure of democracy, which is incomplete at the present time. We are members of the oldest Parliamentary body in the world, which is called the Mother of Parliaments. [Interruption.] I am not strictly correct, but I think that for all practical purposes we are. We declare our belief in democracy. We say that we believe in justice. We affirm the right of every man to freedom of thought and freedom of speech. My contention is that these are all empty phrases if after the people have cast their votes in an election, those votes are not reflected in adequate representation in this House. We have had the completion of adult suffrage, the secret ballot, the extension right through of the franchise, and yet a General Election remains almost one of the biggest gambles in this country. I know how boring it is for the House to listen to figures, but I am going to quote several figures, and shall ask what has happened in the elections since we have had adult suffrage. I want to deal with my own county, the greatest of all, Yorkshire.

Mr. Pickthorn (Cambridge University)

The largest.

Sir H. Holdsworth

Yes. In the 1929 election Labour polled 1,000,000 votes, for which they got 40 seats. Conservatives polled 700,000 votes, and they got 15 seats. Liberals polled 520,000 votes, and they got two seats. The majority of votes were cast against Labour. They were in a minority, so far as Yorkshire was concerned.

Mr. Woodburn

How does the hon. Member know that they were against Labour?

Sir H. Holdsworth

Because the majority voted for the other candidates.

Mr. Woodburn

Can he tell us how the people who voted Liberal would have voted had not a Liberal been there?

Sir H. Holdsworth

Under Proportional Representation the transferable vote would have shown that.

Mr. Woodburn

So the hon. Member's analysis is wrong.

Sir H. Holdsworth

No. There was a greater number cast against Labour than for Labour.

Mr. Woodburn

That is not conclusive.

Sir H. Holdsworth

I think it is. Labour got 40 seats out of 57. In 1931 the Conservative Party polled 1,000,000 votes in Yorkshire, and got 36 seats; the Labour Party polled 800,000, and got seven seats; and the Liberals polled 150,000, and got five seats. The Labour vote dropped by one-fifth, but their seats were reduced from 40 to seven. I am making the point that such a large change in representation with such a small change in voting is a perfect farce. I do not believe that we can use any other word. In 1929 throughout the country Labour had an increase in voting strength that should have given an extra 23 seats. They actually got 138 extra seats. In 1931 the opposite happened. They lost votes which represented a loss of 39 seats, and they actually lost 224 seats. Any of us who sat in the 1931–35 Parliament must recognise that on votes cast the representation of Labour was scandalously low.

I was going to quote the figures for the 1935 election, but I will be content with those. There was not a colossal difference between the total number of votes cast, but there was a tremendous difference in the seats. The Conservatives got 406 and the others the remainder. I am not criticising the Conservatives, but I do not think anyone will challenge the statement that, for many years, Conservatives have been over-represented in this House according to the votes cast, and the point I would like to make to the Conservatives is that the present system may just have the opposite result before many years pass. My view is that large majorities make for weak Governments. It is not good for the country. Large majorities give far too much power to the Executive. I am one of those who think—and I think every hon. Member knows my views—that if you get a majority of a few hundreds you know you can ride roughshod over the rest. It would be a far better House of Commons if we did not have these huge majorities.

There is another point I want to make. We have a very difficult time facing us in the post-war period. I have referred to the speech I made in 1933 in which I said there was a grave danger that the whole economic structure of the country could be changed by a Government having a large majority in this House received from slightly more than one-third of the votes cast in the election. I think that is a dangerous position, whether from the Left or Right, and my own view is that, in this difficult postwar period, we ought to take steps to see that such a thing cannot be.

Sir Granville Gibson (Pudsey and Otley)

Is it not far more dangerous to have a repetition of what happened between 1929 and 1931, when a small number of the Liberal Party were able to——[Interruption.]

Sir H. Holdsworth

I am perfectly willing to answer that question, but I do not think it is relevant.

Sir G. Gibson

I think it is relevant. Did the hon. Member not say a moment ago that it was dangerous to have exceptionally large majorities? I ask, is it not also dangerous to have a small minority which could sway the Government one way or another?

Sir H. Holdsworth

It is no answer whatever. I agree there was a small minority of that kind and it is a very unsatisfactory position, but that arose out of the present system, not out of Proportional Representation. That is the answer to that. I make no apology for my views regarding private enterprise. I am absolutely opposed to Socialism. There are very few people in this House who are. What I want to say is that, whether we are under private enterprise or State enterprise, we ought not to be at the mercy of an electoral gamble as to whether one system substitutes the other, as it can do under our present system. I want to make one other point about the minority Members in this House. I believe there were 315 Members in this House in 1929 who were here only representing a minority of the votes cast in their particular constituencies. Well, if we cannot have Proportional Representation, I would accept the alternative vote if I could do away with minority representation. I cannot think it is desirable that any man should sit in this House and not represent a majority of the electors of his own constituency. I know it is argued that people should be compelled by law to vote. I think this is totally wrong, as long as we have the present system.

In many constituencies electors do not vote because they know they cannot make their votes effective, and, in many cases, if men are compelled to vote, very probably, seeing that their own particular candidate has no chance, they will vote, not for the man they want, but against the man they do not want. If we want people to vote we ought to devise a system under which their votes will really count. I agree I am in a hopeless minority about this, but it does not make me any the less enthusiastic, because majorities are usually wrong. I would like to see the Speaker's Conference deal with this question and I would like it to try an experiment, at least. I have one good supporter, the Prime Minister himself. I think we all remember the right hon. Gentleman making a speech in June, 1931, in which he asked—I am paraphrasing him—for an experiment in citizenship in industrial areas, and I beg hon. Members to give serious consideration to the question whether some such experiment should not be made.

Earl Winterton (Horsham and Worthing)

Will the hon. Member say on what date the speech was made?

Sir H. Holdsworth

On 2nd June, 1931 I may perhaps read the last part: Under the Proportional Representation scheme, these cities would regain their collective personality, and their Members, of every hue, Liberal, Conservative or Socialist, would speak for the opinions of very large numbers of people forming an integral society. The leading figures in our political life would find at the summit of these great cities far more secure and independent seats than is possible to-day. Our cities would become centres where keen and powerful debates would, as is almost impracticable now, proceed again before an increasingly attentive audience, and the formation of new opinions in these centres would influence thought in the surrounding districts."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd June, 1931; col. 103, Vol. 253.] Before answering one or two objections, I want to go back to the question whether it is desirable or not that there should be only two parties in the State. I cannot understand a democracy confined to two parties. It is not a very far step to Hitler. He only went one step forward when he said, "We will have one party." That view is being propagated to-day in this country. There is a certain reverend gentleman—I cannot be sure of his name—who comes from Birmingham and speaks on behalf of a society called, I believe, the Christian Council of the Clergy, of which the Bishop of Bradford is President. He came to Bradford and addressed a Common Wealth meeting. He has written a pamphlet in which he says that true democracy can only be expressed through one party. I do not know how far that is removed from totalitarianism. It is complete totalitarianism, and it is only a qualified totalitarianism which says you shall belong to one of two parties. I want to suggest that, if we really believe in democracy, we shall allow the other man to think as he thinks fit and not as we think. The lack of the personal touch has been mentioned. There is no Member who spends more time in his constituency than I do.

Mr. George Griffiths (Hemsworth)

Except me.

Sir H. Holdsworth

The hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. G. Griffiths) is there every week-end.

Mr. G. Griffiths

And they know it, too.

Sir H. Holdsworth

Surely it is not beyond the wit of man to see that, in the City of Bradford, its four Members could arrange to deal with certain specific areas of the City? It seems to me a futile argument to say that it would destroy the personal touch, and if I were told that every person in that city were a constituent of mine I would acknowledge it to-day. I am quite certain that the hon. Member for Hemsworth receives letters not merely from Hemsworth but from the areas contiguous to it. I am so often told that it would encourage vested interests. I think the present system does that, on both sides of the House. I believe that Proportional Representation, by extending constituencies, will give a far better opportunity to those who are now under the power of vested interests than the present system gives. I was sorry that the Home Secretary to-day made what I think was a mistake. In 1930, there was a conference, presided over by Viscount Ullswater, and it passed a resolution by 13 votes to 8. It was as follows: Any change in the present system of Parliamentary election should include the adoption of P.R. in the single transferable vote.

Mr. Pickthorn

I think my recollection is right—and I am sure that the hon. Member is the last Member in the House who would wish to state the position unfairly—that the Conservatives voted for the resolution with the express stipulation that it was only on the assumption that some change was necessary and that it was not only a question of P.R.

Sir H. Holdsworth

That is absolutely correct. I agree that that was the interpretation of the promise made by Viscount Ullswater in the other House, when he said that, after threshing it out and expressing different views, they came finally to this resolution. I want to finish with one quotation from the Prime Minister of recent date. On 14th October of last year, in this House, he said: The Government are fully conscious of the importance of giving attention to all measures designed to secure that whenever there is an appeal to the country—whether at by-elections or at a General Election—the result shall be fully and truly representative of The views of the people."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th October, 1943; col. 1047, Vol. 392.] I trust that, as a result of the deliberations of the Speaker's Conference, the words of the Prime Minister will be implemented and that we may complete the democratic structure begun more than a century ago.

Mr. Woodburn (Stirling and Clackmannan, Eastern)

I am sure that the. House has listened to the hon. Member for South Bradford (Sir H. Holdsworth) with interest, as presumably he is speaking generally for the Liberal Party, and has put forward what he thinks is the strongest case that can be made for a change in the electoral system. The House, in listening to that case, will be satisfied that something much stronger must be made out if we are to depart from our well-tried methods. The illogicality of one of his arguments struck me as being specially apparent. He said that in Yorkshire 1,000,000 people voted for the Conservatives, 800,000 for Labour and 500,000 for the Liberals, and he added the Liberals and Conservatives together and said that they were all against Labour. How he could tell that is more than I could understand. He went on to argue that it was a bad thing in elections for people to vote against something, and not for something. While he advocated that the Yorkshire argument should be supported on the basis that certain people were against Labour, he referred to another argument and said that it was a bad principle and that people ought to vote for something. He also criticised the disadvantages of large majorities. I have found from the history of Parliamentary proceedings that there is more discipline in the parties in the House of Commas when there is a small majority than when there is a large majority. It is impossible, when there is a small majority, to have anything but the strictest discipline, because any Division might determine the fate of the party. When there is a large majority, there is much more freedom of discussion and more freedom for Members than could exist normally.

Sir H. Holdsworth

That was not the real point that I was making. It was that the power of the Executive was so tremendous that they could not afford to ignore it.

Mr. Woodburn

I should think that the contrary was the case and that the Executive would have far less power of discipline over Members when there is a large majority than when it is a small majority. The hon. Gentleman said that he was an enthusiastic advocate of private enterprise in everything.

Sir H. Holdsworth

Those are not the words that I used.

Mr. Woodburn

The hon. Member implied the presence on different sides of the House of Members who had qualifications about private enterprise and that he had none. I would like to ask him whether he would put the Army, the Navy and the Air Force in his scope for private enterprise.

Sir H. Holdsworth

The hon. Member is making this like a schoolboys' debate. The answer is obvious.

Mr. Woodburn

The hon. Gentleman must admit that he qualifies his support for private enterprise. Therefore, we are back to the question where private enterprise starts and where it ends. I, speaking on behalf of my hon. Friends, welcome the Government's decision to set up a Conference to examine the question of electoral reform. After the last war democracy suffered great strains throughout the world and, in many countries, completely broke down. All over Europe we have seen dictators arise who have destroyed the basis of the democratic method of conducting government. We have to approach the period of reconstruction and peace. It is wise that we should step forward from the existing circumstances into the new peace era with the knowledge that our electoral and Government machinery is well fitted for work during that period. Therefore I agree with the Minister that the time has come when we should take stock. Democracy has two elements, and this is where the argument to which we have just listened fails. Democracy is not only a question of the machinery of democracy but also a question of whether the people who are working the machinery are democratic. If the people who are working the machinery are not democratic then no machine can make a democracy. There is a legitimate criticism of the large majority that existed between 1931 and the present day; even that majority will admit that. Looking back on these days, there was much too rigid a discipline and much too great a desire to resist anything that was proposed by a minority, and by that they were led into many false trends, and that had a great effect on the lack of preparation for the war.

Democracy has a further essential. In a real democracy the majority must take account of minority opinion. The majority must agree to reasonable discussion by the minority and take into account what the minority put forward. If the majority is simply to club the minority, that is not democracy. I assume that whatever majority comes to the House of Commons the minority will still have expression. The argument for Proportional Representation put forward by the hon. Member was that it would give expression to minorities in the House of Commons. I have never seen the slightest difficulty in minorities obtaining expression in the House of Commons. There is not a Member who does not at some time or other rise and put some small minority point of view in order to give it expression in this House, even if he does not necessarily agree with it. It is his duty to his constituents to put such views. If the only purpose of elections is to give expression to minority opinions, then every Member in this House is prepared to do his duty in that respect.

We have seen countries where minorities were not allowed to express opinions, and prior to the war there was a tendency in some parts of this country to adopt the same practices as were adopted on the Continent. No doubt, in order to try and suppress minorities, many people turned a very favourable ear to Fascist propaganda, believing it to be the way to crush the growing strength of Socialism on the Continent, and that Socialists might become the major party in this country. There were people who toyed with the idea that some extra-constitutional method might be the best way with which to deal with them. I hope, in view of what has happened on the Continent, that any who toyed with that idea will have surrendered it for good and will be prepared to accept the majority decision, even when it goes against them. The alternative in working any political system is that we must settle disputes either by counting heads or by smashing them. I believe that the majority of the people in this country are prepared to settle them by the method of counting heads, and since we have settled our disputes amicably for nearly 200 years without civil war I suggest that we proceed on the assumption that that is to be continued in the future. The war has proved the unity of this country, and that the people, by their own democratic decisions, have been prepared to accept sacrifices and a discipline which far exceeds the discipline exhibited by any other country in the world. That has been done by agreement. I am bound to admit from these benches that the Conservatives, who were elected by a large majority, and who were assumed to be reactionary and to suppress minorities, have during this Parliament, by agreement, given way on many social reforms to the demands of minorities, and by agreement we have made more progress in social reform during the past four years than we had made for many years prior to that time.

Mr. Maxton (Glasgow, Bridgeton)

Will the hon. Member give some examples?

Mr. Woodburn

One example is that of old age pensioners. The old age pensioner, who at the beginning of the war had 10s., can now, if a married man with a family, have 35s. per week, plus his rent, and a great many other things as well if they are available.

Mr. Maxton

He could still get help before this war.

Mr. Woodburn

Only if he was prepared to go to the Poor Law, and many of our people would not go to the Poor Law. In my own constituency a large number of people were practically starving because they would not submit to what they thought to be the humiliation of the Poor Law. In some districts people were driven to such a state that they nearly all had to go to the Poor Law, but in some parts of Scotland, as the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) knows, people felt it to be humiliating to go to the Poor Law. The purpose of an election is not to elect people to give voice to a minority in the House of Commons but to decide which Government is to conduct the affairs of this country. If we forget that, we shall be led into all sorts of side lanes as to who should be represented in the House of Commons. There are three questions proposed for consideration in regard to the election of a Government to govern the country. The first is—and it is the main one before us—that we should reconsider our own system; the second is Proportional Representation and the third is the alternative vote. I agree with the hon. Gentleman who followed the Minister that it cannot be settled on a mere mechanical assumption.

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