HC Deb 21 April 1948 vol 449 cc1952-60

(1) The method of voting at a parliamentary election shall be according to the principle of the alternative vote and shall be conducted in accordance with the rules set out in this Section.

(2) A person voting as an elector shall indicate the candidate who is his first choice by placing the figure r or the mark X on his ballot paper opposite the name of that candidate, and any ballot paper so marked shall be counted as a first preference vote given to that candidate; he may also place the figure 2 opposite the name of the candidate whom he would prefer if the candidate who is his first choice cannot be elected; and in cases where there are more than three candidates, he may indicate his subsequent preference by the figures 3 or 4 and so on opposite the names of further candidates.

(3) If, on the counting of the votes a candidate receives an absolute majority of first preference votes, that candidate shall be declared elected.

(4) If no candidate has received an absolute majority of first preference votes, the candidate who has received the smallest number of first preference votes shall be excluded, and each ballot paper counted to him which indicates a second choice for one of the unexcluded candidates shall be transferred to, and counted as a vote given to, that other candidate, and the candidate who receives an absolute majority of the votes reckoned at that count shall be declared elected.

(5) If still no candidate has received an absolute majority of the votes, the process of excluding the candidate who has received the smallest number of votes and of transferring to unexcluded candidates such of the ballot papers counted to the last excluded candidate as indicate second or subsequent choices for some one or other of the unexcluded candidates and of counting ballot papers so transferred as votes given to the candidate to whom they are transferred shall be continued by means of succeeding counts until one candidate receives an absolute majority of the votes reckoned at the count or until only two candidates remain unexcluded.

(6) The candidate who receives an absolute majority of the votes reckoned at any count shall be declared elected.

(7) The votes reckoned at any count in respect of any candidate shall be taken to be the votes counted to that candidate at the previous count with the addition of the votes transferred to him at the count in question.

(8) Nothing in these rules shall require the returning officer to reject as invalid or void for uncertainty any ballot paper which is so marked as to indicate the intention of the voter to vote for any candidate as his first choice or to reject any ballot paper by reason only that no effective second or subsequent choice or a subsequent choice in excess of the valid number of preference is indicated thereon.—[Mr. Emrys Roberts.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

11.0 p.m.

Mr. EMITS Roberts (Merioneth)

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

This is quite a simple proposal, and I have been at some loss to understand why there has been so much opposition to it in the past. It is a far more simple process than proportional representation. It is not open to the same complexity and it can be far more easily explained to the electors. Furthermore, it has the great advantage that it preserves the system of single member constituencies. It is possible to operate it within the framework of the present Bill. It is an attempt to secure that any person elected to this House shall have the maximum support of the electorate and at the same time to deal with the problem of people whose votes at the moment do not count. It only comes into operation where there are three or more candidates and the elector, if he so wishes, can mark his preference one, two and three. If he does not wish to do it, he need not. If he wishes, he can merely put a mark opposite his first preference.

If, in an election where there are three or more candidates, one of the candidates secures an absolute majority over the other two, there is no need for this Clause to operate because it is quite clear that out of the three candidates, one has obtained a clear majority over the other two. This Clause will come into operation in the case of the first candidate not having a clear majority, and it then enables the electorate to have what is, for all intents and purposes, a second ballot. It will operate in this way where there are three candidates so that the bottom candidate is eliminated.

Mr. Henry Strauss (Combined English Universities)


Mr. Roberts

Perhaps if the hon. and learned Member will contain his impatience for a moment, I can tell him. He should be the last ones to ask for brevity in this House. The second preferences are then divided among the remaining two candidates. At the moment, the votes cast for the unsuccessful third candidate are largely wasted, but under this process these votes are counted among the remaining two candidates according to the preference expressed by the people who voted for the lowest candidate in the first ballot. It therefore gives the elector the maximum choice. If there are three candidates—Conservative, Labour or Liberal—the elector may prefer the Labour candidate, but if the balance of political forces in the constituency make it unlikely that the Labour candidate would be successful, then it is up to him to choose whether as a second alternative, he prefers the Liberal or the Conservative. Similarly in another constituency, he may prefer to vote Liberal though it is a favourite pastime of other parties to say that votes for Liberals are wasted. But it enables a man to express his preference by voting Liberal and he can then say to himself—"If I do not get my Liberal in "—and this is what Members above the Gangway may fear—" I may prefer a Labour member to a Conservative one." It is a simple process. It is used by many trade unions in the election of committees. I see one hon. Member opposite is shaking his head and another assenting.

Mr. Hogg

They are using the alternative vote.

Mr. Roberts

It is used when there are many candidates for political committees and when there are many applicants for posts. It is virtually a second ballot and it has a long history. I do not propose to go into all of it, but a Royal Commission of 1910 considered this method of election and decided strongly in favour of the alternative vote. It is hardly necessary for me to remind the Committee that in 1931 the alternative vote proposals, as embodied in this Clause, were carried through this House and, but for the 1931 election, would undoubtedly have become law in that year. The Lord President of the Council was at some pains to make it clear that he had never been in favour of proportional representation, but he could never say that as regards the alternative vote, because many Members of the present Government voted for this proposal in 1931—no fewer than 15 of them.

They included the Prime Minister, the Lord President of the Council and the Home Secretary, who made a very good speech in favour of it on the Third Reading. He said: It will enable the electors themselves, and not through caucuses"— a good word that— to exercise a greater and wiser preference in the choice of their representatives.—[OFFIVIAL REPORT, 2nd June, 1931; Vol 253, C. 127.] The present Chancellor of the Exchequer, then Solicitor-General, was one of the most ardent defenders of the proposal. Others included the present Minister of Health, the present Minister of Labour and the present Minister of Food and—though I do not want to weary the House with the list—even the present Secretary of State for War.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham)

Can the hon. Member explain how this is going to work out? Let us assume there is a four-cornered election and that there are Conservative and Socialist candidates and that there is a National Liberal who, we may assume, would have all his votes cast for the Conservative if he does not succeed—

Mr. Roberts

There would be no Conservative if there was a National Liberal.

Mr. Hale

That is one of the curious forms of Conservatives emerging on the benches opposite. Let us assume that there is also a member of the I.L.P. who is likely to have his votes cast in those conditions for the Socialist, and votes of the National Liberal for the Conserva- tive. It will depend on how the first preferences are transferred. Is not the result going to be that the one who gets the smallest support will win in the end? Because if the National Liberal polls only 400 votes and the I.L.P. polls 600, then the 400 will be transferred to the Conservative and the I.L.P. 600 will be transferred to the Socialist. Is not that really how it will work?

Mr. Roberts

It does not work till you get an actual majority and the process goes on till you eliminate the smaller voting totals. I think the system better than the present one because these votes have an effective value which they do not possess at all under the present system. The hon. Member interrupted me at the most interesting part of my argument when I was giving a list of members of the Government. [Interruption.] I am very glad to hear one Member below the Gangway applauding the Members of the Government who voted for this proposal.

Mr. H. Strauss

It is very desirable that the Committee should understand, as I am quite certain the hon. Member for Oldham (Mr. Hale) understands, that the proposal contained in this Clause is not even theoretically sound. There is a respectable intellectual case to be made for Proportional Representation. For reasons given by hon. Members on the Front Bench opposite and on the Front Opposition Bench on numerous occasions, the great parties in this country reject Proportional Representation. Those reasons I personally believe to be good reasons. Nevertheless, anyone who has studied the subject knows that there is a respectable intellectual case to be made for Proportional Representation. What is the meaning of Proportional Representation for which a good case can be made? One ascertains as far as possible the first choice of everybody in a constituency. The constituencies are constituencies returning several Members to Parliament, and one attempts to allocate the Members of Parliament between the parties in the same proportion as the voters have expressed their choices. They, have only one vote under this system.

The system in this Clause is something quite different. It says that one shall retain the constituency returning one member and one member alone, but if no candidate has an absolute majority over all others, one eliminates the bottom man. When the hon. Member who moved the Clause got to this point I asked "Why?" because I wanted to give him notice of what I considered was the point he had to answer. There is no more reason for eliminating the bottom man than for eliminating anyone else. There is no reason at all, if one is going to give a value to people's second choices, why one should look only at the second choices of those who have given their first choices to the most unpopular candidate.

Let me take an imaginary example which may please my hon. Friends below the Gangway. Let me assume that a Conservative is top on the first choices. It is conceivable, although not perhaps very likely, that the second choices of those who voted for the top man may go to a Liberal who on the first choices is at the bottom. Therefore, the Liberal at the bottom on the first choices might have on first plus second choices more votes than anyone else. If one transferred the second choices of the man who got the most votes the man at the bottom on first choices would actually be elected.

Mr. Byers

I think that is a little misleading because under this system the man at the bottom is knocked out. Then he cannot be elected.

Mr. Strauss

That is exactly my point. I am sorry if the hon. Member has failed to follow me. I quite agree that he is eliminated but there is no reason in justice why he should be. I am sure hon. Members are in error if they think they are putting forward a case that is intellectually respectable. If they examine their own proposal they will find that they eliminate entirely—if nobody has an absolute majority of first preferences—the man who has the fewest first preferences. Having eliminated that man, they take great account of the second votes of those who voted for him.

11.15 p.m.

Let me take the simplest case where there are only three candidates. By reallocating the second choices of the man at the bottom of the list, they may put the man who was number 2 on first preferences into the position of number 1. whereupon—on the hon. Member's pro- posal—he is declared elected. Hon. Members below the Gangway think that is very satisfactory. I will tell the Committee why they think so. They assume that the Liberal will always be at the bottom of the three, and they are delighted that his second choices shall count. But this will not be received with the same enthusiasm by either of the other two parties, who expect to occupy first and second places.

I know that this illogical proposal commended itself to the majority of the House in 1931. It was necessary for the Government party which had no independent majority to make an immoral bargain with the Liberal Party. But no party is in that position now. The point I am making is that there is no reason whatsoever why you should pay more attention to the second choices of the man who gets the fewest first preferences than to those of the man who gets most first preferences. In the simple case I have taken, of only three candidates, once you have eliminated the bottom man and redistributed his second choices, the top man who then has a majority is declared elected, without anybody else's second choices being considered. I say that is quite impossible to justify on any intellectual basis whatsoever.

The hon. Member who moved this Clause began his speech with two perfectly true propositions. He said this is much simpler than Proportional Representation. It is. He said that everybody can understand it. With the exception of the hon. Member himself, I think that is true. What he did not add was that it was not a system which purported to be fair. There is no intellectual case whatsoever for the single alternative vote in a single-member constituency. There is a respectable intellectual case for Proportional Representation. For good reasons, I believe, the great parties in this House and in the country reject it. But for this proposal there is absolutely nothing to be said on the ground of justice or principle. I advise the Committee to reject it unanimously.

Mr. Ede

This is really the second preference of the hon. Member, because the Liberal Party put down an Amendment for Proportional Representation at an earlier stage, but they forgot to work, out the First Schedule which would indicate how Proportional Representation would be applied, and therefore, if I understand the Ruling of the Chair, their Amendment was not called.

Mr. Byers

I think I had the argument with the Chair on that occasion. The Amendment was ruled out because it was said to be outside the scope of the Bill.

Mr. Ede

I think the hon. Gentleman will see, if he looks up the record, that an allusion was made to the First Schedule. At any rate, it is clear that this is not what the Liberal Party want. They want Proportional Representation. I gather that the Conservative Party do not want it. And, so far as 1948 is concerned, the Labour Party do not want it. I cannot think it would be wise for the House to insert in the Bill a provision which none of the three parties want. After the episode with the Communist Party this afternoon—having asked for Proportional Representation at one stage, they came down this afternoon on the side of single member constituencies—I am not quite sure whether they would like this or not. If they are not here to speak for themselves, I do not propose to explore their philosophical attitude. After the mathematical analysis to which it has been subjected by the hon. and learned Member for the Combined English Universities (Mr. H. Strauss), I advise the Committee not to include this new Clause in the Bill.

Mr. Byers

I am disappointed in the Home Secretary. I admit he is right in saying this is our second preference. I am sure the Committee would agree when I say that the hon. and learned Member for the Combined English Universities (Mr. H. Strauss) has given the authoritative Conservative view on this matter.

Mr. H. Strauss

Not the Conservative view—

Mr. Byers

It is either the Conservative or the intellectual view. It cannot be both. I am assuming it is the Conservative view. I think the Home Secretary is possibly right. The Conservative Party do not agree with this Clause, and will never agree with it, as the correct form for our electoral system. I am glad to know that, but I suggest to the Home Secretary that, since we are all agreed that this is second preference, he should now have a second look at the case for Proportional Representation itself, which, of course, I would not dream of arguing. In the circumstances, I can only say I am sorry that the Home Secretary has not seen fit to accept this second preference for second preference.

Question put, and negatived.