HL Deb 21 June 1922 vol 50 cc1033-44

LORD PARMOOR rose to call attention to the result of recent elections held under the principle of Proportional Representation; and to ask His Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied that the system now in force for Parliamentary elections in this country gives any guarantee that

overtaxed people outside that this is not the time in which to try experiments.


My Lords, I do not intend to exercise my right of reply. I merely wish to say that I am sorry that the noble Earl, Lord Balfour, could not see his way to meet, in any shape or form, the proposals embodied in my Motion, and, therefore, I would suggest to your Lordships that the time has arrived when we should test the matter in the Division Lobby.

On Question, Whether the Motion shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 60; Not-Contents, 29. the elected Chamber shall be of a fairly representative character.

Bedford, D. Knutsford, V. Monteagle, L. (M. Sligo.)
Northumberland, D. Mowbray, L.
Wellington, D. Ampthill, L. Muir Mackenzie, L.
Armaghdale, L. Muskerry, L.
Bathurst, E. Boston, L. Parmoor, L.
Doncaster, E. (D. Buccleuch and Queensberry.) Brancepeth, L. (V. Boyne.) Pentland, L.
Buckmaster, L. Ponsonby, L. (E. Bessborough.)
Leicester, E. Carson, L. Queer borough, L.
Lindsey, E.
Midleton, E. Cawley, L. Raglan, L.
Morton, E. de Mauley, L. Redesdale, L.
Northbrook, E. Dynevor, L. Rotherham, L.
Plymouth, E. Fairfax of Cameron, L. St. John of Blestoe, L.
Portsmouth, E. Faringdon, L. Strachie, L.
Islington, L. [Teller.] Stuart of Wortley, L.
Shaftesbury, E. Knaresborough, L. Sumner, L.
Stratford, E.
Lamington, L. Sydenham, L. [Teller.]
Allendale, V. Lawrence, L. Teynham, L.
Bertie of Thame, V. MacDonnell, L. Treowen, L.
Chelmsford, V. Monckton, L. (V. Galway.) Vernon, L.
Goschen, V. Monk Bretton, L. Willoughby de Broke, L.
Hutchinson, V. (E. Donoughmore.) Monson, L.
Montagu of Beaulieu, L.
Birkenhead, V. (L. Chancellor.) Clarendon, E. Belhaven and Stenton, L.
Sutherland, D. Eldon, E. Clwyd, L.
Lucan, E. Colebrooke, L.
Lansdowne, M. Mar and Kellie, E. Donington, L.
Onslow, E. Gorell, L.
Strange, E. (Atholl, D.) (L. Chamberlain.) Stamford, E. Hylton, L.
Kilmarnock, L. (E. Erroll.)
Ancaster, E. Long, V. Rowallan, L.
Balfour, E. Peel, V. Somerleyton, L. [Teller.]
Bradford, E. Pirrie, V. Stanmore, L. [Teller.]
Chesterfield, E. Ullswater, V. Wigan, L. (E. Crawford.)

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I desire to keep what I have to say within the limits of my Question. I think the noble Earl opposite, Lord Onslow, is going to reply on behalf of the Government. Whenever the matter of Proportional Representation in its wider aspects has been discussed in this House there has always been an overwhelming majority in its favour, and perhaps I might remind your Lord- ships that when a Bill was introduced into this House to give the municipalities and local authorities the option of adopting Proportional Representation that Bill was passed almost unanimously on three or four occasions. Unfortunately, although the predecessors of the noble Earl, who represented in this House either the Local Government Board or the Ministry of Health, promised their assistance in passing that measure through the other House, no progress was ever made.

I noted the other day that the present system, of which I am complaining, was not inaptly described as "a system under which you had one Party or the other in power in the House of Commons, and the people never in power at all." There is one further quotation which I should like to make, and it is a quotation from a speech made by the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack at the annual meeting of the Proportional Representation Society about a year ago. I quote it because I think it summarises in admirable language what it might take me some time longer to express in my own way. What he said was this:— We will never be satisfied, and we shall continue our exertions, until every election that is taken in tins country for public purpose is conducted by the principles and the methods of Proportional Representation. We shall pursue that ultimate purpose because we are convinced that only by the application of these principles can we restore reality and stability to our representative institutions. I do not desire to add anything to that admirable summary of the case for Proportional Representation.

I am not proposing to go into the general question in what I say this evening. I propose, as my Question shows, to call your Lordships' attention to one or two instances of the exceedingly successful operation of Proportional Representation in recent times. I found a difficulty from the plethora of instances which I might have given, because it appeared that with very few exceptions—with the exception of Great Britain and France, and, beyond them, of Greece, Spain and Portugal—every country in Europe at the present time, as regarded its Parliament, not to mention a great many other elections, had adopted this system and found it wholly successful. In order to bring what I have to say into a narrow compass I have selected three illustrations which, I think, will sufficiently serve my purpose.

The first illustration is the admittedly enormous success of Proportional Representation in Malta. It was introduced into the Malta Constitution by the then Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Milner, strongly supported by the Commander-in-Chief in Malta, Lord Plumer. I should like to say one or two words as to the conditions in Malta in order to emphasise the extreme success of utilising Proportional Representation for the election of the Maltese Assembly. There were four Parties before the Election—the extreme Italians, who had separatist views; the political or moderate Italians, who sympathised with their compatriots but were very loyal; the British Party, as it was called; and the Labour Party. Those who know Malta very well have told me that if the Election in Malta had been carried on apart from Proportional Representation there would undoubtedly have been an Italian majority, and that Italian majority would almost certainly have been dominated by the Italian extremists, so that we would have landed ourselves in the difficulty, after giving representative institutions, of having an Assembly disloyal in the sense that it would have been dominated by the extreme Party who certainly desired separatism.

What has been the actual result? It has been that only three of the extremists were elected; that all the other three Parties to whom I have referred obtained proportional representation, and, as I have been told, not only is there no difficulty now as regards the Maltese Assembly, but, on the one hand, it is loyal, because moderate opinion has been adequately expressed, and, on the other hand, it does not desire to interfere with what I may call British questions, devoting its energies to matters of local concern where its duties really lie. It would be much too late nowadays to suggest the impracticability or difficulty in the methods of Proportional Representation which was suggested some years ago. It has been tried in many places, and there has never been any difficulty in its practical application.

Let me emphasise the conditions in Malta. There are three languages there—Italian, Maltese, and English. About 41.4 of the electorate are illiterate; that is an enormous proportion and quite beyond experience elsewhere. The Election was entirely carried out under the Maltese official system. Of all the votes cast only 77 were invalid, and I know of no other instance where so small a proportion of the votes cast have been invalid. So far as the result is concerned, it is clear that all sections of opinion were adequately represented, and you had an Assembly which in every respect was a representative body, or a mirror of those they represented. You cannot have a more complete instance of success under conditions which, prima facie, were difficult, and where one would expect them to operate to the non-success of the system. At the same time that Proportional Representation was made an integral part of the Maltese Constitution a Reform Bill was passed, so that you had not only the difficulties I have mentioned, but also a number of electors who before that time had never registered their votes. I do not stop to quote from official documents which represent in the strongest language the advantages which Malta has gained from the adoption of Proportional Representation.

Let me take two other illustrations. I take the case of Italy. Proportional Representation was introduced in Italy in 1919 during Signor Nitti's Premiership. There have been two Elections; one in 1919, and the other in 1921. A distinguished Italian—I do not desire to mention names—told me that the moderate nature of the attitude taken by Italy, and the way they have been able to deal with the difficulties of the Fascists on the one side and the Socialists on the other, has been entirely due to the fact that under Proportional Representation they were able to have a large moderate body in their Parliament which was of the greatest advantage to the policy of the country. He put it not so much that all Parties are properly represented, though he thought that of great importance, but that the Parliament of Italy has been manned in a far better way than ever before, especially in the number of men who represent moderate opinion.

Now I will take an illustration of the difficulties which were easily overcome in the Italian case. The largest constituency in Italy is Milan, which elects twenty representatives. At Milan all these Parties stood—Socialists, the Popular Party, as the Catholics are now called, the Patriotic Party, the Bloc of the Left, and the Combatants. Every one of these Parties obtained representation exactly in proportion to their numbers. I have to make one reservation—namely, that the Combatants were not sufficiently large to obtain a single representative but, apart from that, the elected representatives were exactly in proportion to the number of electors who belong to each of these Parties.

Let me take one other election in order to show the success of the Proportional Representation system. Twice now the county bodies for education in Scotland have been elected on the principle of Proportional Representation. It was a very difficult matter in this case, because on education there is a great variety of opinion in Scotland and it was feared that the Roman Catholics would not get their proportionate representation. All that difficulty has disappeared under the system of Proportional Representation, and I find that in the county of Renfrew, at the last election, 90 per cent. of the electors obtained effective representation. There were seven Moderates, one Roman Catholic, and one Labour member elected. There was not the slightest difficulty. In the second election in Scotland a record was established—namely, that 240,000 votes were registered in a single day under the system of Proportional Representation. It is too late now to suggest that there is any difficulty as regards its application.

As to the other point of my Notice—to ask the Government whether they are satisfied that the system now in force gives fair representation—I will give two illustrations, although they might be multiplied indefinitely. Take the case of the Elections in 1906 and 1918, both held at very important times in the history of this country. In 1906 there was no doubt a majority against Unionists in the proportion of four to three, but the majority of seats against Unionists was more than three to one, an absolute distortion of the representative principle. I recollect that the late Lord Balfour of Burleigh protested more than once as regards that Election in Scotland. There they had 368,000 Liberal votes, and 250,000 Conservative votes, whereas the sixty Liberal Members had only 6,000 votes behind them while the twelve Conservative Members had 19,000 votes behind each of them. There again you had an absolute perversion of the true representative principle.

In 1918 the majority of votes in favour of the Coalition was as five to four, but the majority of seats was as five to one. It is a great misfortune in any electoral system to have one Party over-represented to that extent. The Coalition were supported by 13,000 votes pet seat, whereas the Opposition had 51,000 votes per seat. If we take the whole Election, there was a majority of 414 in favour of the Coalition, whereas, regarding the votes cast, it ought to have been only 114. Not a bad illustration, again, is afforded by the late Elections in Canada. It was a misfortune in both ways. Not only did Mr. Meighen and ten of his Ministers fail to obtain election in Quebec, but every one of the 65 seats was held by one Party. Practically the same is true of what has been called the prairie vote. It is not only that you fail to get a proper representation of the electorate, but you fail as regards the body elected. Everybody felt the loss—we have heard him speak this afternoon—of Mr. Balfour, when he failed to get a seat in 1906, and every one who cared for Parliamentary government must have regretted it when Mr. Asquith failed to get a seat in 1918. We must consider, therefore, not only the relationship between the votes and the persons elected, but the whole character of the House, which suffers under the existing conditions.

I do not want to detain the House longer, because I think I have put forward sufficient points, and I have already had an opportunity of telling the noble Earl what was my desire in bringing this Question forward. I earnestly hope that he will be able to speak in the same spirit as has often been expressed in this House by the representatives of the Ministry of Health. Although there are other elements in the Government, yet so far as the Ministry of Health is concerned, I hope he will be able to say that they are still, as they always have been, or, at any rate, in recent years, strongly in favour of a reform in our electoral system in the direction of Proportional Representation, which might make it a reality instead of a farce.


My Lords, if I may touch upon the last point which the noble Lord raised, this question is now no longer dealt with by the Ministry of Health but by the Home Office, in accordance with a Bill passed, I think, last year.


I am much obliged to the noble Earl; I did not know that.


There was one matter which the noble Lord also touched upon before he asked his Question—namely, the Bill which has been passed enabling a local authority to adopt the method of Proportional Representation. I think it is the noble Lord's own Bill. He brought it into this House three times, and your Lordships passed it. The Government see no reason to change their attitude towards that Bill. They did not give any promise to facilitate it, or to adopt it, but they did not oppose it. I think my noble friend, Lord Hylton, moved some Government Amendments to the Bill on the last occasion.


And they allowed it to be starred in the other House.


Then the noble Lord gave us some very interesting information as to the working of Proportional Representation in Malta and in Italy. I have nothing to add to those interesting remarks, but I think your Lordships will be very grateful for the information which he put before you. As regards the third instance of Proportional Representation to which he alluded—namely, the elections to the educational authorities in Scotland—I understand that these have given satisfaction on the two occasions on which they have been held, but perhaps I might observe that elections to educational authorities are not an absolute parallel with elections to Parliament.

As regards the attitude of His Majesty's Government, two Questions on this subject have been put to the Leader of the House in another place, one on March 8, and the other on May 22. On both those occasions the right hon. gentleman stated that the Government had been fully occupied with other and more urgent questions, and had not discussed further reform in the electoral system. I am afraid I cannot give any further information to the noble Lord on that point, but perhaps I may be allowed to point out that, as regards the House of Commons, the principle of Proportional Representation has been rejected by a decisive majority on two occasions, first, by the late House of Commons, and, again, by the present House of Commons. In accordance with the provisions of Section 20 of the Representation of the People Act, 1918, a scheme was prepared for the election of 100 Members for constituencies returning not less than three nor more than seven members. That scheme was rejected by the House of Commons by 166 to 110 votes. Last year, a Bill was introduced in another place, and was rejected on a Second Reading, the Whips not being put on, by 186 to 87 votes. While, therefore, nobody will deny that the present system of conducting Parliamentary Elections may not be perfect, the principle of Proportional Representation has on two occasions recently been decisively rejected in another place, and, therefore, there is nothing to add to what the right hon. gentleman said in the House of Commons in answer to the questions there addressed to him.


My Lords, I rise only to make one very brief observation. My noble friend who has just spoken defined, as was to be expected, with the most complete accuracy the position of the Government, as a Government, in relation to those major methods of reform which all of us who believe in Proportional Representation have in our minds, but it is also true that there is not the slightest reason why any individual member of the Government should not on any occasion declare his own strong view on either side of the question. I happen to be one of those who now for many years have been strongly in favour of Proportional Representation, and I take the opportunity of saying plainly that, both inside and outside the Cabinet, I never allow an opportunity to pass of raising my voice in favour of truths which seem to me to be at once elementary and indisputable. There are intelligences to which the truth, however lucidly explained, penetrates more slowly than to others, and one must not, therefore, necessarily be disposed to complain, but I might remind my noble and learned friend who asked the Question to-night that there have not been wanting lately other and very remarkable illustrations of the growth of this doctrine, to which, no doubt, he has not referred because he regarded the results as not at present conclusively established.

He might, however, very easily and very usefully have referred to the case of the Irish Elections. Here was a Treaty entered into between two peoples, and, by mutual consent, it was decided that the Elections in Ireland should be conducted on the principle of Proportional Representation. I allude to that matter because a double-edged argument might present itself to an uninstructed mind. It is perfectly true that, had not Proportional Representation been the method of holding those Elections, it is probable that the Republican Party would at this moment have been completely swept out of Ireland. At first sight that might appear to many to be a strong argument., not in favour of Proportional Representation, but against it, and the only reason I allude to the circumstance at all is to enter a caveat against a conclusion which I should regard as at once hasty and superficial. Consider what it would have meant. It would have meant that you would have had in Ireland a body, represented in the constituencies by many thousands of violent men, and possessing no conceivable means of making its voice and influence constitutionally heard.

I do not know whether the Party which was so decisively defeated will or will not acquiesce in its constitutional defeat, but of this I am sure, that they are far more likely to treat the new resulting situation as one which may be coped with and must be coped with along a constitutional road, than they would be if they felt that they were denied any access to the Assembly which is the product of that Election. I have no more to add at this late hour, except to reassure my noble and learned friend that as far as my colleagues are concerned we adhere most closely to the support of this movement, which we have never ceased to declare now for many years.


My Lords, before the Motion is put, as I belong to that body of opinion to which the noble and learned Lord Chancellor referred, who have less acute minds and therefore take longer to arrive at wise conclusions, I think it only right to say, after the speech of my noble and learned friend opposite, that although it was extremely interesting I could find in it no answer to the question hitherto put without reply in the other House, and which has contributed, I think, more to the defeat of these proposals in the other House than anything else. I do not deny the statements made by my noble and learned friend as to the apparent effects of Proportional Representation, but I am sure the noble Viscount on the Woolsack will admit that this is at least true: that when the Elections are over and the results are being examined there is as much, or at all events a very large body of, evidence available to contend that the result of Proportional Representation has been to take votes from those who would be in a responsible position. Is that wise or not?

My noble friend took, I venture to say, very extreme cases. He took the cases of 1906 and 1918. Those Elections were of so abnormal a character that I do not think they can be admitted as being cases of this kind. I went through the Election of 1906. I was beaten in a borough election, but another constituency was found to take pity upon me, and I was returned before the Elections were over. I do not believe that that Election failed in any way accurately to represent the feeling of the country. The cry at that time was against what was described as the enslavement of Chinese in South Africa, and I said then that if the people of this country really believed in freedom, and really believed that slavery was being supported in South Africa by the Government, they should do what they did in 1906—namely, turn the Government out. At that time the feeling against us was overwhelming, and I do not believe that the results in Parliament exaggerated the feeling in the country.

But the point that we have put, and which has never been answered, is this. How do you propose to achieve proportional representation without having very large constituencies represented by at least five to seven members? It has been admitted that you must have that. I know nothing about the Scottish educational elections, but you cannot compare them to political elections. I believe that the complete change which you would make in England by turning your constituencies into very large electoral areas would be a change so radical that; I hope it will not be made until the evidence is much stronger in favour of it than it is at present. I should not have ventured to intervene if it had not been that my noble and learned friend tempted me to do so, as representing those who are less happily endowed than himself and are not able so quickly to arrive at a wise conclusion.


May I thank the noble Earl, and attempt to answer the two questions that the noble Viscount, Lord Long, has put? As regards the size or the area of the constituency, the opinion is that there would be about three members in each, but I never heard before that there would be any difficulty as regards the size of the constituencies. I do not know what the noble Viscount's experience was in 1906, but my experience in the Manchester district was that it was the Protection cry which destroyed us then.


Oh, no.


May I remind the noble and learned Lord that there are at least ten causes, each in itself perfectly accurate?


I accept that explanation and will not say anything more.