HL Deb 07 March 1928 vol 70 cc382-403

EARL GREY rose to call attention to the growing discontent with our present electoral system, due to the ever increasing number of three-cornered contests, and to the urgent need for accurate knowledge of the working of other electoral systems. The noble Earl said: My Lords, on the last occasion when our electoral system was under discussion the noble and learned Earl, Lord Birkenhead, said that in his opinion the whole question of electoral methods was deserving of much closer study than it had received. It will be within the recollection of your Lordships also that the Royal Commission on Electoral Systems, which sat in 1910, reported that, although they could not say that a case had been made out for a change in our electoral methods at that date to the single transferable vote, they considered it possible that circumstances would arise which would make its adoption desirable.

I do not wish to ask your Lordships to agree with me that the time has come to make a change to the system of the single transferable vote to which the Royal Commission alluded in their Report, but I wish to call your Lordships' attention to the fact that since the date of that Report a great mass of new material bearing upon the constitutional developments with which the Report dealt has become available, especially since the War, and that all that new material is well worthy of close and careful study. At present the Journal of the Proportional Representation Society is the only publication I knew of that sets itself to analyse the tremendous influence which the methods of electing Parliaments has upon their personnel, their legislation, their national policy and even the formation and maintenance of Governments. I cannot help feeling that it is rather curious that in a country which has been so pre-eminent in constitutional history as our own a closer study of the question has not been made. Whether that is due to our wholesome dislike of disturbing systems with which we have become familiar from long practice and which have worked well, or whether it is the pre-occupation with all the other great changes which have rushed upon us since the War, I do not know, but it seems to me that we are facing the present electoral situation as if the only question we have to deal with is who is to have the vote, and that we need not bother ourselves as to whether that vote is effectively exercised. Yet I should have thought that the number of voters was probably the least important part of the electoral position with which we have to deal.

If we made a comparison with twenty years ago we should find that there were about 5,000,000 electors then, and that next year, presumably, there will be over 25,000,000. There were then two main Parties. At the next General Election, I suppose, there will be at least four main Parties. Again, your Lordships have no longer the power you had then of delaying legislation until it is possible to ascertain the will of the people. Finally, there is the growing discontent with three-cornered elections. In the last twenty by-elections there have been eighteen three-cornered elections. On twelve occasions the member returned to the House of Commons did not receive a majority of the votes cast. It would be hard to contend, I think, that this was satisfactory; indeed, everything points to the contrary. He would be a very bold man, it seems to me, who would prophesy that half the members returned at the next Election would receive a majority of the votes cast. Under such conditions the authority of the House of Commons and of the Government must be in danger of being challenged; and soon the Government may find itself forced to change the electoral method for this, if for no other, reason, that it cannot afford not to move.

I believe there are still some people who think it is possible that we may return to the two-Party system. I cannot believe there are really very many of them or even that they are very optimistic. I know that Viscount Grey of Fallodon, speaking at Birmingham last October, was reported to have spoken as follows:— I realise the inconveniences of the three-Party system and long for the old simplicity of the two-Party system, but the tendencies, the forces that have brought about the three-Party system are much more likely to go on to make four Parties than to reverse their energy and enable us to revert to two. If men and women have the practical sense that government must be carried on—a sense which has never yet failed the British people—the new system will be made workable. What seems essential, if democracy is to survive the dangers which threaten it, is that we should find some method of ensuring reasonable continuity in national policies. Is that going to be our chief aim when we come to the time that we have to reshape our electoral methods, or, on the ground that it did not work so badly in the past, are we to remain content with violent swings of the pendulum and large majorities alternating for Parties far more fundamentally opposed to each other than they have been for a very long time past?

I am afraid, if this question of large or small majorities is debated between industrialists and politicians, you will find that opposite views are taken, and that the weight of argument lies with the industrialists. Politicians seem to me to have an exaggerated horror of small majorities, which is rather hard to justify merely from a study of the records of Parliaments which have not been blessed with large majorities. Legislation under such conditions may not be spectacular, and may, possibly, throw considerable strain upon private members. But that does not mean that the country suffers. The virtues of the tortoise have long been recognised. On the other hand, when big issues are at stake, the swing of the pendulum has not been conspicuously successful. The Irish problem, for instance, proved quite insoluble by that method.

The late Lord Oxford and Asquith, speaking in the House of Commons, made a most interesting allusion to the subject of small majorities in 1917. During the debates on the Representation of the People Bill he is reported in the OFFICIAL REPORT to have said this:— I have been a Minister of the Crown when the Government of the day had the smallest majority on record, and next when the Government of the day had the largest majority in its support on record. I am not at all sure, looking back on my experience of these two diverse conditions, which of the two I would prefer. A small majority is by no means an unmixed evil. There is a strong sense of discipline and responsibility and of support for the Government. When you have got a very large majority a member may feel that it does not matter very much whether he supports the Government or not. I believe the Whips' experiences are the same, and on the whole they prefer working with a majority which is not too large. In the Parliament to which my right hon. friend referred and of which both he and I were members—that is from 1892 to 1895—as be truly says, the majority of the Government never exceeded forty, and sometimes dropped to ten, and on one occasion, when discussing the Welsh Church, to seven. I am not at all sure that it does not compare favourably in actual results with Governments which were much better situated as regards their numerical support. At first sight it may seem a curious transition, but I want to go from Governments with small majorities to National Governments, and to say a word about them.

I think it is admitted that the National Governments which came into being during the War were the best instruments for steering their respective countries through the crises that faced them, and I think it is a point in favour of small majorities that to a large extent they share with National Governments the limitation that they cannot pass very contentious legislation. Both have to carry the country with them. I think it is also striking that before these Wartime National Governments left the stage, in almost every case, they changed the electoral methods previously in force in their countries—mostly the single-member system—and they adopted systems which aimed at securing minority representation, and which, in practice, have returned no large majorities. The experience of those Governments so introduced shows that not any of them have been Governments which on paper were thought to be strong Governments with large majorities. I suggest that the interest of that lies, not in the similarity or dissimilarity of their political conditions to our own, but in ascertaining whether the Governments produced by those methods have been, in fact, able to lead their countries forward steadily and usefully in spite of not being strong Single-Party Governments.

The two countries faced with the greatest difficulties since the War are probably Germany and the Irish Free State. In Germany there have been several Governments since the War, but all have been combinations of middle Parties. Dr. Stresemann has said that a German Government must be based upon the middle Parties and gather up the common forces; yet Germany has not stood still. All things considered she has made remarkable progress. Proportional Representation, under which those German Governments have been formed, may have created internal difficulties in Germany. If so, I have seen no allusion to them. But at all events it has this to its credit, that it has saved Europe from a Germany governed by either of the two more extreme political wings, either of which would have made the Locarno policy impossible in Europe.

Again, in the Irish Free State there has been remarkable progress, such as nobody in your Lordships' House could have hoped for a few years ago. Of course, there have been great difficulties, but government has remained in the hands of one Party, and during the last five years the Irish Free State has progressed from a reign of terror to the position which it occupies to-day. An Irishman, writing in the Round Table, says of the Irish Free State:— Our political conditions are certainly more stable than they would have been under a less accurate system or representation. The Fianna Fail Party have obtained a representation proportionate to their strength in the country, and have learnt that, whilst they cannot hope to denounce the Treaty, neither can they pose as a persecuted and powerless minority and refuse to face their responsibilities. It cannot be doubted that this smooth adjustment to new and changed conditions is of greater value to our infant State than the violent swings of the pendulum to which we would be liable under the old system. In speeches recently delivered at the Dublin Rotary Club, business men have testified to the moderating influence exerted by the spirit of fair play inherent in their method of election. It would be quite easy, if it did not take too long, to multiply this sort of instance, as a similar type of government has been evolved in all the Scandinavian countries and in Belgium during the last decade, but my object is not to try to prove more than that there is a great mass of new material bearing on constitutional developments which could not be put before the Royal Commission which sat in 1910, and that it deserves most careful analysis.

I have only one other word to say, and that is to ask the noble Marquess the Leader of the House whether, in preparing their Franchise Bill, the Government have really finally determined to deal with no large issues except the one issue of who is to be given the franchise, and, if that is the case, whether he does not think that the collection and publication of accurate information of the recent developments that have occurred in electoral methods in the Dominions and on the Continent, and of their political reactions, is an object well worth undertaking. I venture to stress the words "accurate information" because, at present, there is very little doubt that, though the allusions in the Press to possible alterations of our electoral methods, or rather to discontent with our present methods, are infinitely more numerous than they have ever been before, yet when these allusions pass to descriptions of what is being tried in other countries they are frequently most misleading.

If we are going to be called upon in the near future to make up our minds on a subject about which the country is still so profoundly ignorant, I do suggest that we must have sources of information to turn to which can be regarded as accurate and impartial, and which are not open to the accusation of being the product of interested parties. The facts of the case ought not to be in dispute. We ought to know the way in which these other electoral systems have worked in practice and the facts ought to be presented, it seems to me, with the authority of the Government. I think it is Dr. Simpson, in one of his books on the Second Empire, who says— What Englishmen condemn is nearly always worthy of condemnation, if only it has happened. Surely, this is a matter in which it is of vital importance to us in this country that we should know what has happened.


My Lords, I should like to support the views which have been put forward by the noble Earl in favour of inquiry into electoral methods. I should like to support him, to use his own words, in the urgent need for accurate knowledge of the working of other electoral systems. I agree that this is not an occasion to go into any particular electoral methods in any detail. That would be matter for subsequent discussion after the information which he asks for has been accurately ascertained. That the present system does not give effective representation is hardly denied by anyone, but when I come to the possible alternatives I must guard myself, because those with whom I am nearly always in cordial agreement do not hold my views upon this topic. My views in that respect, therefore, are personal and not Party views.

As the noble Earl pointed out in his speech, this is by no means a novel question in this House. I will not go back as far as he did, but I will go back to what happened in 1918, to events in which I think the noble Marquess the Leader of the House himself took a leading part. At that time I was Chairman of a Committee dealing with the subject of Proportional Representation, and the Committee included members from all Parties in this House. Notable, amongst them were the late Lord Lansdowne and the late Lord Balfour of Burleigh. I am not quite sure, but my recollection is that the noble Marquess was also a member of that Committee. At any rate, if he was not a member of that Committee he was cognisant of the negotiations that took place, in order that the views then expressed in this House might be introduced into the Representation of the People Act of 1918.

The result of that inquiry was that there was an overwhelming majority of opinion, not from one Party but from all Parties in this House, in favour of some system of Proportional Representation. The late Lord Lansdowne, when the matter was being considered in this House, moved a Resolution, which was adopted and became part of the Representation of the People Bill, providing that Proportional Representation should be tried in a number of selected constituencies, partly rural and partly urban. That was in accordance with a resolution which had been passed, I think unanimously, by the Speaker's Conference, an entirely nonpolitical Conference, in favour of the establishment of a certain number of Proportional Representation constituencies in our densely populated areas. I recollect that among these hundred seats which were recommended my own County of Buckingham was included, and I recollect particularly the case of Leeds where, I think, there was an almost unanimous desire for Proportional Representation. I suppose the result of that Inquiry is still in the hands of the Home Office or of whichever office it was by which the Inquiry was directed. But when the matter came again before the House of Commons they rejected the experiment altogether, so that, although the expression of opinion in your Lordships' House was entirely in favour of it, and although your Lordships' House actually provided that it should be tried as an experiment in certain cases, nothing in fact was done.

Viscount Younger in a speech—I do not know whether it was on that occasion or on some other occasion—used a very homely expression as regards our present system. He said that it was not a system with which anyone could be satisfied. That is, of course, only a first step towards recognising the necessity of an Inquiry. I do not believe that any one will be ready to say that our present system is satisfactory. In the first place it is not truly representative. We know that you often get a distorted representation, and you get it in two ways. You get it by a disfranchisement which may go to the extent theoretically of 49 per cent. of your voting power, and which, in fact, does go to the extent of 35 per cent. in certain parts of the country, or has done so in the past. So far as Proportional Representation is concerned, the maximum of disfranchisement is in the neighbourhood of 18 per cent. Surely there can be no worse system than an electoral method which disfranchises voters to whom, under the Enfranchisement Acts, the vote is intended to be given.

I recollect, in this context, President Garfield speaking in America of the minority in a particular election in the place where he lived. He said that so far as these persons were concerned, although they had a nominal vote, they might just as well live at the North Pole so far as they had any effect upon politics, and that the result was that they lost political interest. That, to my mind, is a very important point. If you are to have, as I suppose we have, a system of democratic government, it is very important that you should encourage political thought and political reasoning amongst as large a number of your voters as possible. You cannot expect that interest will be taken where voters know for a certainty that they can never influence the election because they are in a permanent minority in a particular single-member constituency.

There is another important factor to which the noble Earl referred. You not only get a large measure of disfranchisement, which is entirely wrong in principle, but even where the voters have substantial power you do not get any accurate result. I do not want to treat a matter of this kind as a political question, but the noble Marquess knows quite well that on representative principles the present Government is a minority Government. Although it has an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons, yet on the test of votes, as against the other two Parties, it is in a minority. That is not right in relation to representative principles. Let me say one word more upon that point. There is no doubt that the representative principle of government is on its trial at the present time. I do not want to refer to particular countries, but Spain and Italy are well known examples of countries where the representative principle has been placed on one side. We are the nation among all others which has brought to the greatest pitch of constitutional perfection and organic working the principle of representative government, and surely we are lagging behind if we do not appreciate that our electoral method as it exists has not been brought up to date.

We have in practice three Parties at the present time. If you have three Parties and a single-member constituency it is quite a fluke or a gamble whether the person elected represents a majority or not. In very many cases he certainly will not, and in any case it is a gamble. If you believe in representative government you ought not to leave these vital matters to a gamble. A Government that is in power for five years under our system ought to be set up on a truly representative basis. I am no advocate of frequent Elections—I do not think that they are conducive to stability—but if you have a Government in power for five years that is not really representative, leading the House of Commons, which should be a microcosm of general public opinion, it is surely a very serious consideration that practically the whole future of the Empire and the nation may be determined by a Party which has obtained power, not on representative principles, but by reason of a bad electoral method.

I listened to the noble Earl with great attention. I know that there is a suggestion that true representation may lead to what is called a weak Government. I am not against a weak Government in one sense, and I will explain what I mean. But where the method has been tried that has not been the result. I think that where the representative principle is in force, that Government is strongest which has the largest amount of public opinion in its support. As the noble Earl pointed out, the Government framed during the War on that basis was the best Government that could have been framed to give full weight to national considerations in a time of national danger. The idea that extremists should be in control of the Government is, I think, certainly a mistake, unless you believe in some other form of government than representative government, and that, I think, has been found to be the case on many occasions. You want a system which really represents the maximum of consent amongst the electorate.

I agree with the noble Earl that it is not necessary to go into the question of Proportional Representation. This system has been adopted in practically all the north-western parts of Europe and also, as we know, in Germany. He also referred to the very prominent case of Southern Ireland. The conditions there were extremely difficult. If one considers the state of feeling in Southern Ireland when they first became practically independent, one cannot help thinking that it was a triumph in favour of a system which practically allowed all the reasonably strong people to go into the Irish Parliament and carry on a Government there apart from either extreme Party. A new experiment to which I would direct the attention of the noble Marquess will be made shortly in this connection. There will be an Election in France, where they have never had Proportional Representation, though they have a second ballot, and there will be an Election in Germany, which will be conducted on the basis of Proportional Representation. I should advocate upon a question of this kind that we should get information from every trustworthy source, and certainly not embark upon a change in our electoral method until full and accurate information has been obtained.

In his speech the noble Earl referred to knowledge of the working of other electoral systems. So far as I know there are only two other electoral systems which have been suggested. One is the double ballot. I need not say anything upon that topic, because it has already been discussed in this House, and did not find favour. The reason why it did not find favour was admirably stated by Sir Arthur Hardinge, our representative in Belgium in 1908, because in 1908 the double ballot existed in ten or twenty countries, although I believe it exists nowhere at the present time, except in France. He pointed out that in Belgium you had the Clerical Party, the Liberal Party and the Socialist Party, and the effect was that by a combination of two Parties against the other you did not get any true measure of representative government. The system has been abandoned by common consent in every country where it has been tried, except in France. I know of no other country where the double ballot is still in force. I have here a list of countries where it has been tried, and that list includes Austria, Hungary, Bavaria, Germany (for the Reichstag) Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland. Therefore, there have been ample tests and experience, and the result has been that the system has been abandoned everywhere, except in France.

The only other system that I know of, which can be referred to as a working electoral system, is what is known as the alternative vote. The alternative vote has been described as the first, cousin of the double ballot, and it operated very much in the same way, but rather more disastrously, because it operated principally to deprive leading men of the position to which they were entitled, owing to the jealousy of other Parties. Of course, an electoral system which results in cutting off the heads of some of the leading statesmen in the country is never in itself to be commended. Therefore I do not think that either of these systems is to be commended. That, however, is not my point to-day. Let us really think this thing out again. Let us really realise what are the difficulties of the present system. Let us feel that it is our duty, as protagonists in the system of representative government, to think out the best alternative system. It may be that we cannot find one. I am in favour of a particular system, but that does not matter. The thing has got to be worked out, and I thoroughly support what was said by Lord Grey, and I hope that the noble Lord will do what he can to publish accurate information, in such a form as to be available for the study of all of us, in order that if possible we can come to the best conclusion. That is all I wish to say, except that I am entirely in support of the noble Earl.


My Lords, a discussion of this kind is always interesting to people like myself, who have been in their lifetime largely engaged in electoral struggles and in considering various proposals made with regard to our electoral system. I have never been able to believe in Proportional Representation as being at all suitable, even in the past, to our situation, and it appears to me to be quite impossible now. With probably four or five constituencies grouped together, in which you might have 200,000 or 250,000 voters, how it would ever operate satisfactorily I cannot think. It would certainly entirely divorce from the Election any advantage which the candidate might have personally in conducting it, and would open out a vista of probabilities which I think would tend, no doubt, to what Lord Parmoor has just said—namely, the return of a weak and comparatively useless Government.

I saw, or rather received the other day, a very ingenious variant of the old Proportional Representation proposals, under which the final result would be based on the figures which the noble Lord deduced about the present position in the House of Commons, with the result that the representatives actually elected were to correspond exactly to the percentage of votes cast for each of the Parties in the whole Election. I cannot imagine Party managers being enamoured of that proposal, however ingenious. It would take considerable time, because nothing would be decided until the whole of the votes had been calculated, and the proportions taken out of the various Parties who were to be represented in the House of Commons. After that, according to a particular scale, the Liberals, Conservatives, and Labourites were to be selected. A man might be at the head of the poll for a particular constituency, and yet not have a seat in the House of Commons. That is reductio ad absurdum.

The noble Lord quoted me as saying that I did not think any one could say the present position was satisfactory. I have said that, and I think so now, but the difficulty is to find what you would put in its place. I should rule out Proportional Representation, and when you come to the transferable vote you have exactly the position expressed by the noble Lord as occurring in Belgium, where a couple of Parties make an agreement beforehand to kill the third Party. For instance, the Socialists and Liberals agree to give their transferable votes to each other, with a view of killing the Tory party, or the Conservatives and the Socialists may make a similar agreement against the Liberal Party. That is surely a most unsatisfactory situation, and particularly so when you consider that where there are three candidates it is the transferable vote of the man lowest on the poll which is going to settle the Election. You have, say, 10,000 votes for the Conservative, 9,000 for the Liberal, and 8,000 for Labour. It is the second votes of the 8,000 which are going to settle the question as between the other two. It seems to me quite absurd that the Electors who vote for the man lowest on the poll shall, by using their second votes, be able to give a majority either to the 10,000 man or the 9,000 man. There is also, of course, a chance of jerrymandering, which would be fatal.

The other day, in a debate in this House, I ventured to say that if you want to secure an absolute majority, which is a very desirable thing to have, of course, the only possibility is by having a second ballot, but then we know that there are great objections to that also. It would be very expensive and it would be extremely harsh to saddle the candidates who were first and second on the poll with the cost of a second contest. It would give, in the interval which took place between the first and second elections, an opportunity of judging, and an opportunity probably of jerrymandering. It would give you an absolute majority anyhow, and it is the only way in which you could get it by a straightforward vote. We know the weakness of our present system, but on the whole I am not prepared to say that at present it is possible to find anything better. At the present moment 20 per cent. of the members in the House of Commons are minority representatives. I think that is a very large percentage. No doubt they are all good men, but there it is, and I do not see how either Proportional Representation or the alternative vote would put us in a better position at the present moment. They would bring into the electoral arena some very obectionable possible practices, and on the whole I am very much inclined to leave things alone.


My Lords, it may be convenient if at this stage of the debate I state very briefly what is the position of the Government with regard to this question. I think most people would be willing to agree that there has been a growing discontent with the electoral system not only in this country but in a great many other countries, and many attempts have been made by Parliament to secure improvements in that system. The Royal Commission of 1910 had only two schemes before it to secure this object. One was the alternative vote, which has already been dealt with by two of the speakers, and I do not think I need say much about that. The Royal Commission of 1910 recommended the system as the best for obtaining an absolute majority, and it is worthy to be noted that the Speaker's Conference of 1917 also made the same recommendation, and that the Representation of the People Bill, 1918, as passed by the Commons, contained provision for it, but objection was raised in your Lordships' House, and it was dropped. My noble friend Lord Beauchamp, on March 20, 1923, introduced an Alternative Vote Bill, but the Government did not accept it, and the Prime Minister stated, on November 29, 1927, in the House of Commons, that the Government did not contemplate legislation for the purpose.

Then we come to the question of the second ballot, which was dealt with in your Lordships' House on the Motion of the noble Viscount, Lord Burnham, a year ago. My noble friend behind me has drawn attention to the inconvenience and the very great expense of a second election, not only for the Treasury, but for the candidates and the returning officers, and he has also pointed out that the people of this country now have a surfeit of elections for every sort of board and local body, as well as at the Parliamentary elections, and it is very doubtful whether, however much money you spent, you would a second time stir the people up to sufficient political interest to make them vote again. The result obtained by a second ballot, as has been pointed out by my noble friend behind me, might, owing to fraud and to many other reasons, be extremely unsatisfactory.

The next solution is Proportional Representation. I do not propose to enter into this rather difficult question. I am not at all sure that I am not a subscriber to my noble friend Lord Grey's fund. I know I was a little time ago, but I must say my enthusiasm for the cause has of late been somewhat diminished. I think it looks most attractive on paper, but I doubt whether in operation it would prove the success which it is claimed to be. Proportional Representation has already been put into operation in this country. The Parliament of Northern Ireland, the Dail of the Irish Free State, the University constituencies of the United Kingdom, and the education authorities in Scotland all work on the principle of Proportional Representation. This matter has been discussed and considered by the Committees and Commissions of 1910, 1917 and 1918. With regard to Northern Ireland it is going to be dropped there, so apparently it is not looked upon as a very great success in that quarter. With regard to the Parliament of Southern Ireland, there was a famous incident in which the fate of the Government hung upon one Party, and by the abstention of a member of that Party the Government were saved. That merely shows that if you have two or three strong Parties and a lot of other small and somewhat insignificant Parties, these, by combining, really exercise a determining influence on the question whether the Government shall be in or out.

My noble friend, in his Notice, speaks of "the urgent need for accurate knowledge of the working of other electoral systems." The Prime Minister has already stated that he does not propose to introduce at the present time any electoral changes in this country; and how is this accurate knowledge of the working of other electoral systems to be obtained? The actual information can be got from any book. But what I suppose is wanted is information about the effect of these systems on the Parties, whether they are fair in operation, and whether the minorities approve of them. How is this information to be obtained? Is there going to be a Commission, or Commissions, wandering about the whole of Europe to ascertain the actual effect of the working of their several electoral systems? I do not suppose that such a Commission would have a very warm welcome, say in Russia, and perhaps not a very warm one in Italy. But it would be absolutely impossible to collect this accurate knowledge of the working of other electoral systems unless there were competent Commissions going about to various countries, obtaining all the evidence on the spot, working out the effect of those electoral systems on the general policies and social conditions of the countries, and then returning home. I would ask my noble friend behind me and many other noble Lords whether it is worth while going to this very great expense in view of the pronouncement which has already been made by the Prime Minister, that the Government do not propose to make any great changes in the electoral system of this country.


My Lords, I am sorry I was not in the House when the noble Earl raised this question, because I should have been very glad to hear what he had to say. I was one of those who had the honour of being members of the Speaker's Conference, and took part in framing the Report which that Conference produced. In that Report there was a clause dealing with this particular point. Very unfortunately, as I think, this House rejected that clause when it was sent up from the House of Commons. The whole, matter had been thoroughly discussed, and I think I am right in saying that we came to a unanimous conclusion that this protection against three-cornered contests would have been effective. The noble Lord has said that no inquiry is needed. We know what has happened and how members are elected to the House of Commons by a minority vote. For my part, I think no one ought to be allowed to sit in the House of Commons unless he has polled half of the votes recorded at an election. If there are five, six, or seven candidates, and the top man has polled more than half of the votes recorded, of course he would take his seat. On the other hand, if there are four or five candidates and 20,000 voters, it is possible for the man at the top to receive only 6,000 votes, and it seems ridiculous to say that he is representative of the constituency.

We are talking nowadays of increasing the representation of the people by enabling young women to vote. I think that step ought not to be taken until such time as the matter of three-cornered fights has been dealt with. It is not as if this matter has not been considered. My noble friend Lord Desborough said just now that it was dealt with by the Committee of which, I recollect, the noble Marquess who leads the House was a member. I am not an advocate of Proportional Representation. I want simplicity, and I think there would be no difficulty if a small Committee were set up, in saying how provisions should be framed for doing away with three-cornered contests and for preventing the return of a man as a minority representative, as happens fairly often at the present time. I did not come down to your Lordships' House with a prepared speech, but I have in mind what the Electoral Reform Committee thought would be effective. As I have said before, the suggestion of the Speaker's Conference was accepted in another place, but your Lordships took out the clause dealing with this matter. For some reason the House of Commons did not return the Bill for the reinsertion of that clause. I think I may say, without doing an injustice to anybody, that they were wondering whether the Liberals or the Conservatives would get the most out of it, and thought that their purpose would be better served if the clause remained out. It seems to me that was a very great mistake, and if the discussion of this subject is not finished to-day and if nobody else will do it, I will try to draft something of a practical character to get over this difficulty. I am sure your Lordships do not desire representatives to be elected to another place by less than a third of the votes recorded at an election. It is not in the interests of the country that it should be so. I do not wish to discuss at the moment exactly what should be done, or how it should be done, because that will want some consideration; but I have not the slightest doubt that it ought to be done, and I have said these few words in protest against the matter being left as it is.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Grey prefaced his remarks by saying that he thought there would always be three Parties. I am not prepared to enter into controversy as to whether there will be three Parties in the future or not, but my own view is that there will be only two, the Conservative Party and the Socialist Party. I think that the Liberals will gradually disappear. They may disappear in the next year or two, perhaps in the next five or ten years; but that they will gradually disappear is, I think, almost a matter of certainty. The noble Earl suggested that Proportional Representation might be a success, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Parmoor, spoke strongly in its favour. I am not sure whether the noble Earl, or for that matter the noble and learned Lord, quite understands what Proportional Representation is.


The noble Lord will forgive me for interrupting him, but I did not advocate Proportional Representation. I merely asked for an Inquiry into the new conditions which have arisen.


I think my noble friend was very wise in not advocating Proportional Representation and, therefore, I will deal only with Lord Parmoor. I said that I thought it very likely that he did not know what Proportional Representation was, and I made that remark for this reason. Some years ago I was a member of the Proportional Representation Committee in another place. I voted for Proportional Representation certainly once, and I rather think twice, in that House; but I never could thoroughly understand it myself and I have never met anybody else who could understand it. After its results in Northern and Southern Ireland, at Oxford University and, I think, at Cambridge University as well, I felt for the first time in my life that I was wrong and that in advocating Proportional Representation I was committing an act of foolery. Therefore I turned completely round. I think the result of the last Franchise Bill coupled with the result of the next Franchise Bill will make it impossible to carry out Proportional Representation. First of all, as my noble friend Lord Younger has said, you must have constituencies of between 200,000 and 300,000 electors. I do not wish to discredit the electors or their intelligence in any way, but I am certain that when they went to the poll the great majority of them would not know in the least what to do. Consequently, there would be much greater confusion and much worse results than there are at present.

The noble Earl told us with regard to the Parliament of 1892 that Lord Oxford made some remarks as to the majority in that Parliament. I happened to be a member of that Parliament, and I am certain that every member of the Liberal Government and every member of the Liberal Party regretted that their majority was so small and would have given anything for a large majority. I took the opposite view, because their majority was so small that they could not do anything or very little, and I thought that was a good thing. I am certain that if my noble friend Lord Salisbury was leading the House of Commons he would much prefer a large majority to a small one. But it is my belief that the best Government is a weak Liberal or Socialist Government with a strong Conservative Opposition; because in such circumstances the Conservatives oppose Socialistic measures, whereas a strong Conservative Government generally passes them.


My Lords, I really should not have risen to address your Lordships this evening but for an appeal which has been made to me personally and to which I must reply. I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Grey for bringing to our notice a very interesting subject; but I am sure he recognises that it is to a certain extent an academic one. There is no prospect, of course, as I think he knows, of His Majesty's Government introducing any modification into the method of voting at the same time as they are engaged upon the new Franchise Bill which is about to be produced. I am not going to be drawn into saying what the provisions of that Bill will be. It would be very irregular and very inconvenient; but it is safe to say, as indeed the Prime Minister himself has said, that it will not deal with any such subject as the method of voting. So the subject is academic in that sense.

All that my noble friend has asked for is that the information which is already at our disposal on this subject shall be further elaborated. That is a very modest request, and I will not absolutely refuse a proposal so put forward. If my noble friend will allow me, I will look into the subject personally, and see whether there will be any possibility of adding, without undue expense, to the information we already possess, but I am sure my noble friend will realise that anything like a roving commission, such as someone has described, all over Europe to find out how the various electoral systems work would be a great waste of energy and of money. I think my noble friend will realise how difficult that would be if he would look at the matter from the other side and imagine a foreign Government who wanted to find out the precise working of our electoral system which sends representatives here. I confess that I think any Commission sent from a foreign country for that purpose would have their work cut out. It is doubtful whether there are any Englishmen who thoroughly understand the working of our electoral system, and I am certain no foreigner would be able to get a glimmer of it, except after a very long inquiry indeed. Such things are not feasible. But it may be possible to add to our information on the subject without any such heroic remedy as that.

I should like to make one observation with respect to the speech of the noble and learned Lord opposite (Lord Parmoor), who was not merely interested in this question of Proportional Representation but declared that the present system is very unsatisfactory because His Majesty's Government are supported by a majority of members who do not represent a majority of the electors. That is a different point. But I do not agree with the noble and learned Lord, even if the facts be as he states—though I am sure he said what he believes to be true—because our representation has never been a pure representation of numbers. The representation of the House of Commons is not merely numerical but is local, and personally I value the local character of the representation in the highest degree. It is not an answer to our present system to say that if you put all the votes of one Party together all over the country, and all the votes of the other Party a different result would have been produced from that which we see. That is not the way we have ever looked at it. The various parts of England, Scotland and Wales have their different representation, and to place them all on a numerical basis would be a most revolutionary proposal from the point of view of British history and British traditions. Neither does it involve the question of Proportional Representation. Even if you had one of the systems suggested you would still have enormous differences between the value of the vote of one man as compared with the value of the vote of another. So far as the principle is concerned, it is clear that that rests upon a wholly different footing. It is true that these three-cornered fights are in many respects unsatisfactory. They do not correspond altogether to an ideal system, and if some method could be devised by which they could be eliminated, it would be well worth consideration.

Let me say one further word. I myself have been in the past a great supporter of Proportional Representation, but not in that particular Committee to which several noble Lords referred. If I remember aright, I resigned from that Committee because I did not approve of the method by which it was conducted and the direction in which it was moving. But that is by the way. I have been a supporter for many years of Proportional Representation, but there is this matter which I think it would be well your Lordships should consider. The system of Proportional Representation which attracted me involved the creation of large constituencies. The system which is called "the single transferable vote" involved large constituencies, and I have become convinced that there is certainly one great objection to large constituencies, and that is that they largely increase the mechanical power of electoral organisation. That is not a healthy system. I forget when the caucus was introduced into this country, but probably forty or fifty years ago. The caucus has not been a blessing. The elaborate organisation of voters, in the course of which the merits of the question are sometimes entirely lost sight of, and voting by a system of discipline is not very elegant either in its ideals or in its working. That is a great blemish on any system which has to be worked by means of large constituencies. It is true that the more accurate representation of the people is an advantage to set upon the other side. But I should not like your Lordships to forget, when you are dealing with this subject, how serious are the machine-made politics which we have to encounter in the present day. I revert to what I said when I rose to address your Lordships. I will take care to look into the information which is at our disposal to see whether it can be developed on reasonable terms, but anything like a vast. Inquiry into the system of electoral representation all over Europe is, I am sure, not what my noble friend would wish, and not what your Lordships would support.