HL Deb 17 February 1908 vol 184 cc384-90



rose to present a Bill to authorise the introduction of proportional representation in municipal elections, and for other purposes. The noble Lord said: My Lords, it will be in the recollection of some of your Lordships that last year I had the honour of presenting a Bill dealing with the election of the councils of our English municipal boroughs. Your Lordships were pleased to give that Bill a Second Reading and to refer it to a Select Committee, who made careful examination of the Bill, took evidence upon it, and presented a Report. I will only say at this moment on that Report that it was more favourable, I think, than the promoters of the Bill could have hoped, certainly as favourable as they could possibly have wished, to their object. It spoke strongly in favour of the working character of the machinery proposed in the Bill, and, though it made certain recommendations, those recommendations did not affect the essence of the Bill itself. The Bill which I now have the honour to introduce to your Lordships is the same Bill as last year, with the recommendations proposed by the Select Committee incorporated in it. Practically it has undergone no other change.

Perhaps your Lordships will allow me to enter a little into detail and explain the character of the recommendations of the Select Committee. As your Lordships are aware, the municipal councils of our English boroughs are elected in two different ways. The provincial municipal boroughs, organised under the Act of 1835, are divided into wards, each represented by three, or some multiple of three members, and there is a change in every ward each year of one-third of the members. One member at least, therefore, has to be elected, and, in some cases, two or three, in each ward every year, and the electors of the ward, by a majority, determine who shall be the representative or representatives. That system entails a burden which is sometimes felt and complained of—the burden of recurrent elections, which turn too often on political considerations. But the fact that the council is elected one-third every year, although these recurrent elections are perpetuated, does save the council from being completely overturned, as might happen if the whole of the members had to be elected every third year.

But this system involves other difficulties besides that of recurrent elections. In each ward the majority returns the members for that ward, and in that way the representation of the ward is practically always of the same character if the majority of the electors remain of the same way of thinking. And if they are of the same way of thinking throughout the borough, you have a council of a uniform character, and one which, since political considerations enter, may wholly consist of members of one or other political Party. That has happened in the past, but, happily, not often. At the same time there is this determination of the choice by political considerations, and some of the best burgesses of a borough, excellently qualified by public spirit and knowledge for service on the municipal council, are often excluded from membership because they cannot enter under the patronage of one of the political Parties.

The machinery is also open to this grave objection, that it is a matter of chance whether the council of the borough does or does not represent a majority of the electors. If the wards are divided, as they sometimes are, in an uneven fashion, or, again, if it happens that the electors of one way of thinking are congregated too densely in one or two wards, they do not get their share of representation, and you may have this consequence, that the majority of the elected members of the council are of one way of thinking and the majority of the electors of the whole borough of another. That has happened, as your Lordships are aware, again and again in larger assemblies. But there is the great advantage, as I have already said, in the case of municipal boroughs organised under the Act of 1835, that you cannot get a complete overturn of the representation.

The boroughs conducted under a different system are the boroughs of the metropolis, which were brought into existence under the Act of 1899. There the feeling was strong against annual elections. The elections to the metropolitan borough councils, therefore, take place every third year, the whole of the representatives being elected triennially. The consequence is that the majority of the electors in a ward, according to the present system, can return all the representatives of the ward, and frequently do, to the exclusion of the representation of the minority; and our London boroughs are so constituted that in many cases the same character of electorate runs from ward to ward, and what prevails in one ward is not altered or checked by what is found to prevail in other wards. Therefore you have a whole borough represented by persons favoured by one political organisation. This was shown in a remarkable degree in the last elections of the metropolitan borough councils. In two or three instances the members elected were what are called, in political phraseology, Progressives, and not a single member was elected who was not a Progressive. A man might be as well qualified as possible for public service, but, if he did not happen to be a Progressive, he had no chance of success in those boroughs, But in the greater number of boroughs at the last election the wards returned an unbroken phalanx of Moderates, and there none but Moderates are found on the borough councils. Of course, your Lordships will see that to bring about that result and maintain it involves a great deal of political controversy, and a departure from what are often the proper methods on which borough councils should be elected.

The result is attended with an even worse consequence. Since all the members are elected at these triennial elections, you may get a change of opinion, it may be of a sudden and spasmodic character, which completely overturns the representation, not merely of a ward, but of all the wards in a borough. In one case brought before the Committee, a borough which had been represented in previous years by a considerable majority of Progressives returned at the last election a uniform body of Moderates. That involved the loss of all the qualities for public service to be found in previous service. These were entirely lost. In some of the metropolitan boroughs to which I refer the new bodies were at great inconvenience, for they had lost the old chairman of the Finance Committee and the chairmen of the various other committees. All the experience that had been gained by these members had been lost; and in their place there was a body of raw members who had to be very much guided—no doubt wisely guided—by the expert servants of the particular council.

The Bill which I had the honour to introduce last year proposed to give to town councils the power of adopting the different processes of voting which should secure a varied representation according to the varied character of the electors within each municipal area. I need not detain your Lordships at this moment upon the method that was proposed to be adopted, but the result aimed at was that if you had five persons to be elected as representatives of a ward, those five members would represent five separate divisions of opinion within the ward. You would thus be able to bring in members who were independent of both political Parties. At the same time you would secure to political Parties all the power and influence they could exert, and you would secure continuity of service, for the approved persons would not be liable to be upset by the majority being against them, because the continued support of an adequate minority would secure their continued presence in the council.

This was the Bill which was submitted to the Select Committee appointed by your Lordships. That Committee in its Report admitted that the machinery of the Bill was well fitted to accomplish its purpose, and would, in fact, secure that end. The members who constituted that Committee received evidence from persons interested in the subject, but they had also the very great advantage—one which can scarcely be over-estimated—of seeing the actual election of a medical council in London conducted according to the method contained in the Bill; and seeing that election must, I think, have had considerable influence in bringing about their unanimous opinion as to the practicability of the method proposed in the Bill. They thought that returning officers could be found who would be able to carry on the elections, and that they would be able to train their staff to assist them in the work. They had, no doubt, qualifications to add. They were not sure that the majority of the electors would always understand quite what they were doing, and they had some doubt whether, when they had done everything that was possible, they would realise the connection between their voting act and the result when declared. I confess I think these anxieties as to the qualifications of the electors are over exaggerated. We are always too much disposed to underestimate the intelligence of our neighbours; but I think English electors, whether they be in municipal boroughs in town or in country, must be at least equal in intelligence to electors who are found in other countries, where a much more elaborate system of election than that in this Bill has been successfully carried through. The Committee, therefore, proposed no alteration whatever in the machinery of the Bill.

The Bill is of a permissive character. As introduced last year it suggested that the majority of a council, at a meeting convened for that purpose, should be empowered to adopt the Act. The Committee regarded that as too great a power to entrust to a bare majority, and they recommended that the majority necessary to adopt the Act should be three fifths; that the adoption should be experimental for three years only, at the end of which time the council might, by a bare majority, adopt it again for a second period of three years; and that if, at the end of the second three years, they desired to continuo the system, they should then adopt it by resolution, which should be placed on the Table of the two Houses of Parliament, and if either House within forty days moved an Address displacing the resolution the adoption of it by the borough should be null and void. Thus you will see that the recommendations of the Committee extended only to the mode under which the Act should be adopted; they did not at all interfere with the provisions of the Bill itself. The Bill, as I now submit it to your Lordships, contains these recommendations, which have been adopted as faithfully and accurately as possible. Under these circumstances I submit the Bill to you with great confidence, fortified as it has been by the examination and recommendations of the Select Committee.

If I am encouraged in re-presenting this Bill by the result of the examination of the Select Committee last year, I am still more encouraged, I think, in respect to the general question of which this Bill is only a partial and local application, by what has gone on in our own Colonies and on the Continent of Europe since this measure was submitted to your Lordships last year. Sweden has adopted proportional representation, and in Holland there has been a considerable advance made towards it, inasmuch as the Ministry of the day have applied for powers to get this constitutional change brought under consideration with a view to its being adopted. These countries are only following the examples of Belgium and Switzerland, the first to adopt it.

Then, again, I have received the greatest encouragement from one of our Colonies. A few years ago, in the election of a part of its Legislature, Tasmania adopted a system absolutely in conformity with that provided in this Bill. The success of the experiment was too great. It confounded the Party managers, who discovered that some of their authority had gone, and they could not command the machinery as they had before. They thereupon induced the Legislature to repeal the system of proportional representation. A. general election followed, and the Government which brought about that repeal were entirely deposed, and a new popular Chamber came into existence which resolved upon re-establishing the system that had been set aside. With that encouragement on the larger scale, I present this Bill to your Lordships and ask you to read it a first time.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 1a"—(Lord Courtney of Penwith.)


My Lords, my noble friend, in making the speech he has—a very interesting speech, containing a certain amount of detail—has adopted a course on the First Reading of a Bill more frequent in the House which he adorned so long than in your Lordship's House. I hope, therefore, he will not consider that it is from any disrespect to him, or from any doubt as to the importance of the subject with which he is so closely connected, if no further debate takes place at this stage, and if we adopt the more customary course of discussing it on Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read 1a, and to be printed. (No. 17.)