HL Deb 09 July 1931 vol 81 cc759-67

Alternative Vote Rules.

1. A voter at any election conducted in accordance with these rules—

  1. (a) may indicate the candidate who is his first choice by placing the figure 1 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;
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  3. (b) 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 he elected.

2.—(1) if on the counting of the votes a candidate receives an absolute majority of first preference votes, that candidate shall be declared elected.

(2) 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 other 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.

(3) 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 choices for some one or other of the unexcluded candidates shall be continued by means of succeeding counts until one candidate receives an absolute majority of the votes reckoned at the count.

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

(5) If at any time two or more candidates, one of whom ought to be excluded, have an equal number of votes, that candidate shall be excluded the greater number of whose votes are transferred votes, but if there is no difference in this respect between the candidates, the returning officer shall determine which of them shall be excluded."

The noble Earl said: I had ventured to hope up to a few moments ago that the noble Lord opposite would be able to accept my Amendment. This is a proposal really to put back the Schedule to the condition in which it was when the Bill was brought in in another place. I really can hardly describe the process which is intended to be gone through under the Schedule as it now stands with any hope that your Lordships will be able to follow me, but I will do my best. The original proposal was that second preferences should be counted in the case of the lowest candidate and should be added to the other candidates until one or other of them had a majority. Now we have gone beyond that. The proposal appears to be that if there are five candidates and nobody has a clear majority, one of the five drops out and the second preferences are taken and divided between Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4. If that does not suffice, No. 4 drops out and his second preferences are divided between Nos. 1, 2 and 3. Then No. 3 drops out, and his second preferences are divided between Nos. 1 and 2. If that does not suffice they go back to No. 5 again. Those who voted for No. 5, having made the worst selection and having voted as we now learn for a freak candidate, are not only allowed to vote a second time in favour of one of the others, but a, third time and it may be ultimately a fourth or fifth time. That is what is called equality. I say it is the grossest inequality.

Persons who have chosen successfully the more important candidate get no second preference, they get no third preference and no fourth preference, but the man who has less claim than anybody else because he is quite obviously in the greatest minority, is to have a number of further chances of registering an opinion. The whole business, in my opinion, is grotesque, and will have the worst possible effect. Anybody who has stood as a candidate for the House of Commons—and I see many around me even as the House is now constituted who have sat in the House of Commons—knows that it was difficult enough in the old days to get a candidate known to his constituency. In these days it is almost impossible to get personal contact with seventy or eighty thousand electors. It is so difficult that probably, as I said to your Lordships a few nights ago, not one in four, or one in six, or one in ten of the electors ever hear him or see him. By reputation no doubt an intelligent person can make out whom he prefers, but is it to he supposed that he can adjust his preferences to the second and third and fourth and fifth It is really asking more than most members of your Lordships' House could undertake. How then can some hapless young woman engaged all day in business be supposed to know her exact preference between the second, third, fourth and fifth candidates and adjust matters so nicely that when the time conies she may have turned the election by a vote which she deliberately gave? The thing is ludicrous.

It goes beyond that. The gerrymandering which takes place under this system is really terrible to think of. I am not now speaking in favour of one system or another, but at all events let us try to get at the real vote which people intended to give. You cannot possibly do it under this system. Somebody goes to candidate No. 3 and says: "if you will only say you will do so-and-so, you will get the second preferences of all the people who are going to vote for No. 5." I say that is quite foreign to our system. It is not the system which the Government, after full deliberation, brought into the House of Commons. It can only be supported, in my humble judgment, by those who wish this Bill to be an absolute failure. I do not believe it has got the deliberate support, of many members of this House in its present form, and I hope your Lordships will carry out the expressed intention of the House of Commons, that where there are three Parties and two of them would coalesce for one candidate, they should have the opportunity of doing so, but do not make the thing a reductio ad absurdum by carrying preferences to the third and fourth generation.

Amendment moved— Leave out the First Schedule and insert the said new Schedule.—(The Earl of Midleton.)


I should like to say in support of my noble friend that there seem to be two equally possible systems. One is the system known as proportional representation, and to give effect to it you must have very large constituencies. The other system is that proposed in this Bill—namely, the alternative vote, which is applicable to single-member constituencies. But this Schedule, as it stands, applies to single-member constituencies the machinery of proportional representation. It is a ridiculous hybrid, and I sincerely hope the Government will revert to their first opinion and give us back their original plan.


I wish to say only one or two words. I want to emphasise the point that I endeavoured to make on Second Reading, that we have at the present time a House of Commons which, as originally elected, represented a minority of votes. There were more than half the members of the House of Commons after the last Election who did not rightly represent the constituencies, and although I agree with the noble Earl who last spoke that proportional representation is much more logical and effective in order to secure a full and accurate representation, yet I am certain that you could not at the present time obtain a machinery that is better for the purpose of carrying on an Election than the alternative vote. The only way to get rid of minority representation and to secure the election of those who represent the majority of the electors must be the method devised in the Committee stage in the House of Commons. If you leave out what we call freak candidates, the fourth, fifth or sixth preferences, you might secure minority representation. It is only by this machinery that you can really secure a majority vote in favour of one candidate and elect someone who really adequately represents the constituency.

I know that ridicule can be thrown on the third vote as compared to the second, but this is the only simple machinery that can be devised in order to secure a true representation of the constituency under the alternative vote. The other point that I want to make is this. In the ridicule that has been cast upon these proposals, it is generally assumed that all the electors are going to vote for Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, if there happen to be that number of persons nominated. As a matter of fact, I believe that many people will vote for one individual, and will not bother much about a second or third. But of all kinds of machinery devised to enable people to secure better representation of a constituency, I think this is the best system that can be adopted at the present time.


At this late hour, I venture to hope that I need not undertake the task of explaining to your Lordships the method by which the votes are taken. I should like to point out that the point at issue has been very carefully gone into and, as the noble Earl has quite rightly said, his is not a new suggestion. As a matter of fact the Government, in the first draft of the Bill, adopted the simpler system of cutting out everybody but the first two and taking practically one bite at the cherry. But in the course of the discussion in the House of Commons, an Amendment was moved, not by a member on the Government side, and supported by a certain number of Conservative members, in favour of using all the preferences given. That is the effect of the Bill as it now stands.

Now the noble Earl moves to go back to the original proposal of the Government. Quite clearly, the Government must stand by what it accepted from the House of Commons, especially as it represents the opinion of more than one Party. The Amendment was carried by 250 to 129, and it was supported by a number of Liberals and Conservatives. The Government accepted that. I should like to say, in support of that decision that the plan which the Government accepted from the House of Commons was the plan recommended by the Royal Commission of 1910. After going very carefully into all the systems, they recommended the plan that is now in the Bill. I should also like to say that, when the Bill which became the Act of 1918 was circulated, a White Paper was issued by the Government of the day setting forth the system of the alternative vote as they had put it forward, and that White Paper contained the method recommended by the Royal Commission and the method that is now in the Bill.

In those circumstances I would ask your Lordships to accept the decision of the House of Commons. If you are going to have the alternative vote, the system that is in the Bill, though possibly not the most perfect system, has commended itself to the people who have successively looked into the matter and I can only say, having looked into the point myself when the noble Earl asked me to do so on the last occasion, that I have satisfied myself that the Schedule, as drafted, does make sense and does say, not that any man is given two, three, or four votes—of course, no man is given more than one vote—but that the elector votes for his first choice, so long as that person is available. If that person is wiped out, the second preference is counted, so long as that is available, but if the second perference is marked off, the third or fourth preference, as it may be, is accepted. It is the next available preference that is taken. It is as if the candidate for whom the elector voted first had died in the course of the Election. All I can say is that the Government stands by its present proposal for which the House of Commons voted and which was recommended in the two authoritative decisions that have been made on this subject.


At the risk of detaining your Lordships a moment more, may I ask the noble Lord what political value attaches to the third and fourth preferences? If there are four candidates, it seems to me that at least two of the candidates must have a diametrically opposed policy, and yet it seems to me that circumstances may arise in which the fourth preference given by an elector, which is politically the exact opposite of his original vote, may yet have a determining effect on the election. I have tried to work out conditions in which this might arise. If it cannot happen, what is the use of providing for the third and fourth preferences? But if it can happen, it seems quite wrong and ridiculous that a man's fourth and last choice should influence the result of the election, whereas his original vote has been wiped out.


I can only say that it is the whole object of the alternative vote to give all electors, so far as possible, an effective vote. If you ask what is the value of the fourth choice or fifth choice, I agree I do not think it as as good value as your first choice. Moreover, there is a difference in quality, because the first is given for love and very often the second or third from hatred. I do not believe in hatred. All the same the man is an elector, and he is entitled to give his vote, and the whole object of the alternative vote is to secure that the right of giving his vote is not defeated by the fact that the candidate whom he preferred has died or has been wiped out. Let him have his vote for what it is worth. That is the principle of the alternative vote, and we cannot adopt the principle and not carry it through.


I think I might answer the noble Lord's inquiry by citing an illustration given in another place. There were three Conservative candidates at a recent election, and it is very easy to assume from certain figures indicated in another place that the Labour candidate came out on top of the poll because of the differences between the three Conservative candidates; but if the last Conservative had only secured 2,000 votes, and those who voted for him had desired to have their votes transferred, the Conservatives would have thereby secured a majority instead of the Labour candidate.


I only wish to say a few words, and I should not say them at this late hour but for the fact that there seems to be a little confusion about the present proposal. I do not like the alternative vote. I think it is a bad plan, and that when the electors have had experience of it they will take the same view and consign it to the limbo of forgotten things. Still, if we are going to try it, and the Amendment which Lord Midleton moved last week ensures that we shall only try it on an experimental scale, I think we should try it in the way which its authors say is the most perfect way. Lord Midleton explained what he thought would happen, and I am not surprised that he should take the view he does, because it is extraordinarily confusing.

What he thinks would happen is not what the Bill does. What the Bill proposes is that you shall take A, B, C, D and E. You first cut out E and his preferences are transferred. If nobody gets an absolute majority you then cut out D and transfer his preferences. It may be that his second preference is given to E, who has already gone, and the Bill says that then his third preference has to be taken. It really does not mean that you go through all the second preferences and then, when you have done that begin again; but that in the event of a man's second preference being given to a candidate who has already been cut off as being last, then you take what is the voter's third or fourth preference, and use it instead. I do not like the system. I think it is absurd that a man's second or third preference should amount to as much as somebody else's first.

If, however, you take the alternative system, I think we should leave the Government to try what the Royal Commission said was the best plan, and which they believe is the best plan. I believe that the result will be that we shall only have one election under the alternative vote system. I have only intervened because I think there has been considerable confusion as to what the Bill really does do, and I hope I have done something to clear up that ambiguity.


After the speech which has been made by my noble and learned friend, although I entirely object to the Schedule, I think, in view of the present state of the House, it may be wise to reconsider the matter before Report. I confess I am astounded that the Government should complicate an already very complicated procedure by further procedure which is only likely to lead to results which my noble and learned friend anticipates.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn. First Schedule agreed to.

First Schedule agreed to.

Second Schedule agreed to.

The Title: An Act to amend the law relating to Parliamentary elections and electors by requiring such elections to be on the principle of the alternative vote and in that connection making provision with respect to the division of two-member constituencies, abolishing the business premises qualification for registration, prohibiting plural voting, enabling the holding of the poll to be postponed in those portions of a constituency which are separated from the mainland, regulating the use of vehicles at elections, and reducing the maximum scale of election expenses; and for other purposes consequential on the matters aforesaid.


The Amendment of my noble friend the Earl of Midleton, to the Title, is purely consequential, and I beg to move it.

Amendment, moved—

In the Title, at end of line 2, after ("elections") insert ("in certain cases").—(Viscount Hailsham.)


My Amendments are consequential.

Amendments moved—

Lines 6 and 7, leave out ("abolishing the business premises qualification for registration")

line 7, leave out ("prohibiting plural voting").—(Lord Jessel.)


This Amendment is consequential.

Amendment moved—

Line 10, leave out ("regulating the use of vehicles at elections").—(Viscount Bertie of Thame.)