HC Deb 21 April 1948 vol 449 cc1865-75
The Deputy-Chairman

I think it will be convenient to the Committee if the first two Amendments to this Clause are discussed together.

Mr. Gallacher (Fife, West)

I beg to move, in page 53, line 26, to leave out "an electoral division," and to insert: divided in such manner as may be approved by the Secretary of State, after consultation with the London County Council and the metropolitan borough councils, into three electoral divisions. This morning I was reprimanded by some of my hon. Friends for delaying progress last night. I do not propose to do so on this occasion. I will let this Amendment and the following Amendment, in line 29, to leave out "three," and to insert "one," speak for themselves. I will merely say that if the Home Secretary accepts these Amendments, the Bill will be all the better for it.

Mr. Ede

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his brevity, but I cannot help thinking that it did nothing to advance the merits of this Amendment. I am rather surprised to find this Amendment on the Order Paper, because earlier, the hon. Gentleman had an Amendment on the Order Paper to provide for proportional representation. The Liberal Party have put down an Amendment to apply the principle of proportional representation to these constituencies. I will deal with that Amendment later, if it is called by the Chair, but it is clear that in the case of a single-Member constituency a scheme of proportional representation could not be applied at all. I see no reason for departing from the well-established principle in London County Council elections that the Parliamentary constituency and the county council constituency should be the same. It has been a matter of great convenience to all concerned with London municipal government that this has been so. There might be difficulty in dividing these constituencies into three single-Member constituencies, and securing reasonable equality in the size of the electorate, unless we started to split up wards. If there is one thing which is undesirable in the arrangements for constituencies it is splitting up wards. I think that this long-established practice, going back to 1889, should be allowed to continue. The county council constituency and the Parliamentary constituency in London should be coterminous.

Mr. C. Williams rose

Mr. Gallacher

I do not want the hon. Gentleman's support.

Mr. Williams

I can assure the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) that he will not get my support. I rise only to say that the Amendment would have a tremendous effect, and cause serious damage. Its effect, as the right hon. Gentleman said, would go far beyond its actual words. It is a great pity that we cannot have a Division on this Amendment, which would show those who are in favour of it and those who are against it. I should vote with the Home Secretary, but it would be difficult to know how right hon. and hon. Members generally would vote on this matter. I believe we shall miss a great opportunity of clarifying the position if we do not divide. It will be a great pity if the hon. Member for West Fife cannot get enough Members to go into the Lobby to support the party of which he is so distinguished an ornament.

Mr. Gallacher

It is quite obvious that I made a mistake in moving this Amendment, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

6.15 p.m.

Mr. Ede

I beg to move, in page 53, line 29, at the end, to insert: (2) The additional alderman required, in consequence of the increase by virtue of this Act in the number of the said county councillors, to maintain the proportion between the number of aldermen and the number of councillors shall be elected at the first ordinary election of county aldermen after the coming into force of the foregoing subsection. The composition of the London County Council is such that there is one alderman for every six councillors. As the result of the alteration we propose to the First Schedule to the Bill there are in future to be 129 London county councillors. At the moment there are 124, which entitles the Council to 20 aldermen because there is no arrangement for a fraction of an alderman. One hundred and twenty-nine councillors entitles it to 21, and this Amendment deals with the way in which the additional alderman shall be elected.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Byers

I beg to move, in page 53, line 29, at the end, to insert: (2) The method of election of the three members shall be in accordance with the principle of proportional representation, each elector having one transferable vote. The purpose of this Amendment is to introduce proportional representation into the London County Council elections. It does not deal with proportional representation in any system other than that of the London County Council. The fact that each electoral division now returns three members gives us a very fine opportunity indeed of bringing in this innovation. As the Home Secretary noted, we in the Liberal Party were subject to Communist sabotage for having at the beginning of the Bill been in favour of proportional representation. They put down, in front of our Amendment, one which would have made it extremely difficult for us to proceed with ours. I am very glad that we got the usual Kremlin recantation from the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher). Now it is all right, and I hope he will support us on this matter. I hope, too, that we shall have with us the Leader of the House, who has been connected from time to time with the L.C.C.

Quite seriously, there is a case for proportional representation throughout the country, but there is an overwhelming case for trying it out in the London County Council, because no one, who looks at the London County Council elections, can fail to notice the fact that a very small margin of votes is sufficient to change the entire complexion of the representatives for any particular division, and also that under the present system—I do not think this will be disputed—literally thousands of people have no representation at all in the electoral division in which they live, because the votes go to one party or the other. The figures, which I am told are quite interesting, show that where in the past there have been two councillors for an electoral division councillors of the same party were elected as follow—in 1938 both Labour members were elected in 36 different constituencies; and in 1946 in 45 constituencies with no Conservative or Liberal councillors elected. As far as the Conservatives are concerned, in 1938 there were 21 divisions where both Conservatives were elected and there was no Labour representation at all and 14 in 1946. Those figures show how unfair our electoral system is as far as the L.C.C. is concerned.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter


Mr. Byers

I will tell the hon. Gentleman. He does not believe it. Does he believe that it is right in an electoral division where there is a small difference between the number of votes cast for one party or the other that the party in the slight majority gets all the representation. If he does, let him get up and say so.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I am not going to argue the matter in the form of an interjection, but if I have the good fortune to catch your eye, Mr. Beaumont, at a later stage I may vary that point of view.

Mr. Byers

That can best be done by the hon. Member keeping quiet and waiting for his chance. I am asking the Committee to consider first the substitution of a single transferable vote, in other words, voting one, two, three, instead of voting with three crosses. It is a very simple thing to change. To hon. Members on this side of the Committee I should like to say that I do not believe that the present system is fair and the evidence I have here goes to prove it. If we look at Manchster there were four wards of East Manchester which had nothing but Labour councillors, while others had only Conservatives, with the result that there is a differentiation between the East end and the West end which I should like to see go by the board.

In London itself in the Broomwood ward of Battersea 2,844 voted Conservative—why is not my business—and 3,005 voted Labour, a very small difference indeed. The 2,844 got no councillor to represent them at all, while the 3,005 got not one councillor, but eight councillors. I claim that to be wrong. Here are 2,844 people who voted for the Conservatives but have no representation at all, while the 3,005 who voted Labour got all the eight members. If the hon. Member for Kingston - upon - Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) thinks that that is right let him say so. I do not think it is, nor would I think it right if it were the other way round. There are electoral divisions where the Labour party has no representation at all, and yet under the system of proportional representation which we suggest the Committee would have a chance to put that right.

The second point I want to make is that under the present system of voting there is no method of discriminating between a good and a not so good candidate of any particular party. What one tends to do is to vote for the party ticket. That in itself is a bad thing. Under the system of proportional representation it is possible for the voter to select the majority of the candidates from the party which he supports—do not let us forget that we are discussing local government and not national issues—while reserving some votes for the man or men whom he believes on personal grounds would make a very useful contribution in the local circumstances although he or they do not belong to the voter's particular party. In other words, the system of proportional representation as applied to local government will give the electors a chance of personal discrimination in addition to party discrimination.

I do not propose to discuss this at any further length, but there is enough evidence to show that the present system is unfair in the results which it gives. I am not denying that it may be more convenient to the bigger battalions. I am not denying that the Home Secretary may get up and, being the good little Conservative he is from time to time, say that this has been going on since 1889 and he sees no reason whatever for changing it. I ask him seriously to look at this problem again. The London County Council is one of the places where proportional representation could be introduced now to the advantage of everyone concerned. It has worked well in the university elections. Why not try it out on the London County Council?

The Lord President of the Council (Mr. Herbert Morrison)

Why not?

Mr. Byers

I am glad to have the support of the Leader of the House. If anyone would vote for this Amendment but for fear of party discipline I would ask them to remember what the Leader of the House has said, and also to notice the way the right hon. Gentleman is beaming at the remarks I am making.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

The hon. Member for Northern Dorset (Mr. Byers) with his habitual courtesy asked a question and then like a lady in the Bible would not stay for an answer. [An HON. MEMBER: "Who is she?"] I would hesitate to identify the historical character, save to add that the further information which has been given me seems to indicate that the metaphor is even closer than I thought when I made it and even more appropriate. I do not complain of the temper of the hon. Member for Northern Dorset. No doubt he is exhausted by the strain of his duties as a Whip.

The question which he asked me, as I understand it, was whether it was fair that a person who was in a minority in a constituency should fail to elect the candidate of his choice. That seems to me to be wholly fair. A still more important question is: what is the whole object of an election for the L.C.C.? The hon. Member seemed to think that it was to secure the exact mathematical representation of different kinds of opinion. Surely the real object is not so highfalutin, but infinitely more practicable. The object is to secure a London County Council elected in general in accordance with the general trend of opinion and which is capable of carrying on the affairs of that body. Surely it is far more important that there should be a London County Council, which has a majority from a party of one political colour or another, but at any rate a majority with which to operate, rather than to secure the mathematical representation of any particular kind of splinter party, whatever particular appellation that splinter party may have.

It seems to me that the hon. Gentleman who, I know, regards all forms of proportional representation with deep devotion, ignores the practical aspect of government. He seems to think that the object of an election is simply to secure an exact mathematical representation of opinion. I suggest to him that the practical necessities of the administration of the L.C.C. or any other similar body, which has got the confidence of the general swing of opinion and which has the numbers at its disposal to enable it to carry out that policy, is infinitely more important than the theoretical advantage of an exact mathematical representation of opinion.

Perhaps I may be allowed to add this. It is the intention of this Amendment to introduce the principle of proportional representation to the L.C.C., and to that principle the hon. Gentleman and some of his colleagues are devoted. They advocate that not because they consider that it is a particularly efficient way of running the L.C.C. as such, but as a means of trying out their general ideas in this particular arena.

Mr. Byers

And why not?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

The hon. Gentleman said "Why not?" I am glad that he agrees that that is the intention behind the Amendment.

Mr. Byers

And why should it not be? As I said, is there any reason why we should not start proportional representation, which we believe should operate throughout the country, with the L.C.C.?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

In fact, that is, in a great many more words, "Why not?" I should suggest that the L.C.C. was a singularly unsuitable arena for trying out these theories. It is charged with enormous responsibilities as the biggest local government authority in the world on which are imposed immense administrative burdens. It would be difficult to find a more unsuitable laboratory for trying out the experiments of the Liberal Party. I hope that this attempt to put forward political theories at the expense of the sound administration of the capital of the Empire will not succeed.

6.30 p.m.

Mr. Pickthorn (Cambridge University)

I do not pretend that I am very much excited by whether the L.C.C. is to have the single vote or not, but I think there is a point in this matter either of hypocrisy or muddle-headedness which is no doubt plain to hon. Members of the Committee but which perhaps ought to be put plainly in HANSARD. The single transferable vote produces a result more mathematically accurate than the present bare majority vote where there are three or four seats. I see that the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Byers) agrees with me. It therefore becomes a great matter of either hypocrisy or muddle-headedness when one recommends the single transferable vote upon the argument that it has worked very well in two-member seats. That is continually being done. It was done at the time of the Speaker's Conference and it has been done again just now. In a constituency which returns only two Members the single transferable vote makes the result much less mathematically accurate than the bare majority vote. Therefore it is quite plain that there may be practical advantages in having the single transferable vote in two-Member seats but the argument for principle is really a false argument except in the mouths of people who think seats ought to be three-Member, five-Member, seven-Member or eleven-Member.

Mr. Ede

The Committee is indebted to the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Byers) for the way in which he presented this case to the Committee. I am quite sure that he will not expect me to suggest to the Committee that the London County Council should be the dog on which this nostrum should be tried. I should have thought that there was no local government authority in the country where it was less desirable that an experiment of this kind should be carried out. The mere fact that we now have three-Member constituencies does not really differentiate it from outside boroughs. The wards of boroughs have to have a membership of three or a multiple of three, so that the argument could have been advanced with regard to boroughs, in some of which I should have thought there was less chance of doing harm than in the London County Council area.

No one would be expected at any stage of a Debate on this subject to be able to say anything new about it. The question confronting the Committee is: Do we believe that elections should be aimed at providing a body which can carry on the administration generally speaking with one policy inspiring it, or should we arrange for every shade of opinion to be represented on the body with a danger that on many occasions a complete majority following one policy cannot be reached? I should have thought that the disasters which have overtaken democracy in many parts of the continent of Europe were sufficient answer to that. One can get the splitting of opinion into small fragments and the mathematical representation of each small fragment in an assembly to such a point that it becomes almost impossible to have a Government that can continue in office for any great length of time.

This matter has been argued out on general principles so often that it would be an insult to the Committee if I elaborated the arguments against it. I accept the greater part of what the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) said. The Liberal Party say that my own constituency is a shocking example of the way in which the single-Member principle works. They say that no Conservative vote ever polled in South Shields has been of any use since 1832, because I represent the one borough in this country which has never returned a Conservative to this House. When I first stood in 1929 the argument used against me was, "This borough has been Liberal for 96 years. Send up the century." I managed by a very adroit catch in the slips to prevent that century being scored.

I suggest that the practical issue in front of the Committee is: Do we desire the London County Council, responsible for the administration of the capital of the Empire, and the greatest local government authority in the world, to have a composition which in normal circumstances would enable it to pursue a coherent policy no matter whether it be a policy of the Left or a policy of the Right, or do we desire to run the risk that there may be circumstances in which it would be impossible, for a period of three years, to have a London County Council with a policy that could command throughout that time the support of the majority of the members? I suggest that the London County Council is not a body on which to start these experiments.

Mr. Clement Davies (Montgomery)

I cannot say that I am surprised at the Home Secretary's reply, but I cannot withhold my keen disappointment. I could not agree with his conclusions. The reasons he advanced for them seemed to me to be reasons which should lead him to quite opposite conclusions. Let us consider the L.C.C. It is the most important local government body not only in this country, but in the world. It was the first great local government body to be established, and it is responsible for the welfare of many millions of people. Curiously enough it has differed from the other local authorities which were established at about the same time in that whereas until fairly recently the general rule was that people did not bring general politics into local government elections and did not stand for one particular side or another—during the last few years there has been a tendency for them to call themselves Labour, Conservative or Liberal—the London County Council from the very outset divided itself into two parties. For many years there were in control the Progressives, who really represented my party in those days, and the minority were the Moderates, who mainly represented hon. and right hon. Gentlemen above the Gangway.

If this Amendment had been introduced into a Bill in 1906, I should have had the full support of the Lord President of the Council. Our views change according to our position. If one happens to be the minority party, one is in favour of proportional representation; the moment one becomes the majority party, one says, "Well, this really does not work. It is too cumbersome"—

Mr. H. Morrison

Speaking for the benefit of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies), may I say it is perfectly true that the Liberal Party could have passed proportional representation. In their great days they did not do it, and in their lesser days they would have it so. For myself, I have never been a supporter of proportional representation. I have always opposed it because I think it is contrary to good government.

Mr. C. Davies

Why should it be contrary to good government when we get the fairest representation possible and the will of the people expressed more accurately than under the present system? It passes my comprehension how the Home Secretary can say that under the present system we get a fair and proper representation of the opinion of the millions of people of London when they have only one choice. With this Amendment we should have the views of the people better expressed, the people would have a wider choice and there would be a better representation on this very important body. That is why I am so disappointed at the reply to this Amendment.

Amendment negatived.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill."

Mr. Godfrey Nicholson (Farnham)

Is the Home Secretary satisfied that the new City of London constituency has been included in this?

Mr. Ede

I do not think there is anything in this Clause which interferes with the new constituency for the City of London. On the assumption that the First Schedule goes through as drafted, the new City of London constituency will consist of the City of London and the Metropolitan boroughs of Finsbury and Shore-ditch. The City and the two boroughs together will be one of the constituencies returning three members to the London County Council, and local government electors for the City will vote for the London County Council in that constituency.

Question put, and agreed to.

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.