HL Deb 04 May 1938 vol 108 cc809-38

LORD DERWENT rose to move to resolve, That this House deplores the increasing apathy of the electorate as displayed in the voting at Parliamentary, and more particularly at municipal elections, and considers that this is a grave menace to the survival of democratic institutions; and that His Majesty's Government should take measures to stimulate the interest of the public in the exercise of its traditional democratic rights.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the fact that this Motion of mine has figured on the Paper by now for some considerable time might seem to call for an apology on my part; and if I do not offer one, it is not because I claim any resemblance to the officer in Mr. Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man who proudly stated "I never apologise," but because the sequence of grave events that has occupied the interval makes the implication contained in the Motion itself much less academic and much more burningly actual than I like or than I originally intended it to be. As a result, I am obliged to make certain allusions to this (in my opinion) extremely dreary and fruitless Holy War that two systems of government have declared on each other—an obligation that I have so far studiously avoided; and this being the case, I consider that I merit more of your Lordships' pity than of your disapproval.

Before all, however, your Lordships will expect roe to justify my submission that the electorate of this country has become apathetic in the matter of exercising a privilege which took several centuries to conquer. My attention was first drawn to this matter by observing that both at the last General Election and at frequent by-elections since that time, according to figures given in the Press, such-and-such a percentage of the electorate voted; and even if allowance is made for change of voters' domicile, and what, after all, must be a gradually diminishing difficulty experienced by inhabitants of remote country districts in getting to the polling-place, these percentages often seemed disturbingly low, and even where they were higher, one could not help asking oneself, perhaps rather naively, why should it be a question of a percentage at all? Your Lordships would probably not contest what I say, but it is only honest to jog your memories with a few statistics. I have therefore taken ten different cases, and I will give the difference in the percentages of voters between the General Elections of 1929 and 1935, including those of 1931: A rural constituency fell from 90.9 to 82.8; an industrial constituency fell from 79.3 to 69.9; a residential and fishing constituency fell from 84.6 to 68.9; a pleasure resort constituency fell from 81.1 to 73.9; a constituency where low unemployment prevailed fell from 82.1 to 81; a constituency where high unemployment prevailed rose from 79.3 to 80.7—this is the only rise and the case is an interesting one; a spa town constituency fell from 75.2 to 65.7; a University City fell from 84.8 to 68; a constituency which provided an elder statesman's seat fell from 81.7 to 77.4; and a London division fell from 72.2 to 65.3.

Now, your Lordships may consider that these percentages are fairly high; but I am anxious to insist, even while allowing for the heightened interest of the Elections of 1929, that they are only percentages, that they have considerably diminished, and that there is no guarantee that they will not diminish further. I may add that I have chosen them as high as possible, and that I have even instanced a rise, but even in that case, the rise was only of 1 per cent. and the total percentage was only 80. I should add that I have also taken into account the fact that owing to the formation of the National Government and to the consequent enfeeblement of opposition, the usual issues confronting the electorate were less clear-cut than usual. In spite of all this, I persist in thinking that when the number of potential voters is considered, that their average percentage in the typical cases I have mentioned should work out at under 75 per cent. even in favourable cases is a state of affairs serious enough to warrant your Lordships' attention; and I repeat that I could have found worse cases than these.

But there is also another field where the individual has been allowed the possibility of expressing his opinion of the way in which much of his official life is ordered, and that is the field of local government. One would have thought that the parish pump, being nearer and dearer, would exercise a greater attraction than the august purlieus of Westminster. On reading, however, a remarkable letter sent by a Sir James Marchant to The Times on the eve of the last municipal elections, what do I find? Sir James Marchant went to the trouble of discovering a variety of facts, of which the following are the essential ones:—Out of 338 existing county and borough councils, he took, as he says, "a large representative sample" of 92, having together 3,105 councillors; and he contrived to ascertain their various occupations. For the sake of general interest, I will give your Lordships a summary of this search's result. Of these 3,105 councillors, some 1,800 are tradesmen, 1,148 may be called professional, and 157 are women.

Of individual trades builders (almost all regarded as small) top the list with 199; to these must be added 19 architects and 93 sanitary and similar engineers. Next come 173 house, estate and insurance agents. Then come 750 grocers, butchers, fishmongers, bakers, caterers of various kinds, ironmongers, printers, with 215 described as company directors, mostly of trading concerns of a similar character. There follows a block of 215 artisans of various manual trades, including gas, transport, and electrical employees. In addition, we find, somewhat surprisingly, 171 railway employees, chiefly clerks and guards. One hundred and fifty are described as "gentlemen," Manchester and Liverpool providing the larger number. There are 110 "retired" elderly men from Army and Civil Service. Agriculture shows 49, doctors, dentists, and chemists 87, trade union and similar officials 91, policemen 11, magistrates (local J.P.'s) 19, clergy 13, accountants, solicitors, clerks and retired barristers 244, retired schoolmasters 31, the remainder being various kinds of agents—colliery, shipping, stock, etc., with a few journalists, hairdressers, motor-men, and one undertaker, one musician, one pawnbroker, one artist, and three sculptors.

Now, my Lords, I have no intention of commenting on the composition of these important bodies, although I will say, in passing, that the heading of this list by builders and estate agents seems to me to open an attractive field of speculation as to their potential influence on the appearance of our towns and our countryside. I am unwilling to do so, because the question of which occupations produce the most competent councillors is obviously a controversial one, but also and principally because the crux of the matter is, in my opinion, to be found in Sir James Marchant's next statement. He adds: It appears that these borough councillors are elected by about 30 per cent. of the electorate. Of those on county councils about 50 per cent. are almost always unopposed. It is on this fact that I wish to lay stress—although I will, again because I think it may interest your Lordships, conclude with Sir James Marchant's own final observation: And there seems to be a general impression among councillors themselves and borough officials that with, of course, honourable exceptions, the general type of councillor elected tends to deteriorate. There is also a marked dearth of younger men, while older men increase. I trust your Lordships will find that in these facts I have supplied you with sufficient justification for the Motion I have put forward.

I want to narrow my line of argument as much as possible. I want to insist on this cardinal situation: if we accept that the system of government under which Englishmen live is not only the one that we have evolved over a long period and for which, in the eyes of the world, we are primarily responsible, but also the one we want—I assume this for the moment—we find that one of its mainstays, the chance for what is by now the bulk of the population to decide by whom and in what way it shall be governed, is being neglected by them. For myself, I have no hesitation in declaring that I consider such a situation fraught with the gravest dangers; and to put it bluntly, the first and worst of these dangers seems to me to be that if the electorate continues, in great part, to ignore such privileges as it has so far been allowed to enjoy, it may wake up one fine morning and find that those privileges have vanished in the night.

In making such a statement, my Lords, I can assure you I am not acting thoughtlessly. I am under no illusions as to the defects inherent in what I am obliged to continue to call democratic government—I say obliged, because I do not doubt that someone is quite capable of trying to convince me that we do not live in a democracy, but that Demos is "run" by a plutocracy, by Press Barons, by a caste system, by old school ties, by trusts and combines of all sorts, and that it has about as much power as the late Lord Curzon declared he possessed, when he complained that it was limited to sending an office-boy across Whitehall. But I repeat that, rightly or wrongly, it is known as democratic government and that to define it exactly would take us much too far afield. Not only I, but a great many other people are aware that our system of government needs a good spring-cleaning. As to the best means of doing so, opinions are naturally divided; but in these days, when personal liberty is not only decried in more than one country, but denied, flouted, and peremptorily refused, is it not fantastic that in one of the countries where there is still left enough personal liberty to ensure to nearly everyone the possibility of being able to say "Yes" or "No" concerning matters that intimately concern his or her everyday life, both the he's and she's seem frequently quite indifferent as to whether they may express an opinion or not?

Are we to conclude that the huge extension of the franchise whose origin dates to only about a hundred years back and to which men of ability and tenacity devoted whole lives of unselfish work and for which many suffered persecution, represents only a new toy given to a child, of which the child has almost at once tired? Judging from the criticisms directed in England against the régimes of other countries where no such liberties have been granted or, if granted, have been removed, I have no right to draw such a conclusion; and yet, the facts are there. And, at this point, I am obliged, however unwillingly, to face up to the dilemma with which everyone is confronted in these days. If we are, in spite of everything, to suppose that to be able to help in sending a representative to Parliament or to a local governing body is a right that people as a whole no longer appreciate or desire, then it is clear that one of two things must be postulated: either that the electorate wants a reform of the whole system, while maintaining its basis, or that it would prefer to live under a totally different one. Now, I suggest that if the first supposition is right, then the sooner the reform is proceeded with, the better, for in these hectic days, there is no time to muddle through any longer; and there are certain signs manifest that such a desire is fairly widespread. I will only mention an article of Mr. Amery's in a recent Sunday Times written round the question of a special extension of the executive; and were there time, I would much like, since France professes to be living under a régime that resembles ours, to have read your Lordships some of a newspaper article by M. Jules Moch, a Socialist Minister in one of the recent French Governments, in which he sings the praises of the method of granting pleins pouvoirs to an executive in certain cases, subject to discussion and control by the Legislature as far as the details are concerned.

If, on the other hand, the public's apathy over voting is due to a desire for a complete change of system, then I find it, as I have said, difficult to see why there is this spate of criticisms directed against the régimes adopted by other countries. It is clear that in certain circles there is, for instance, the same sort of admiration for what I will call authoritarian government as certain Athenians of the classical period of ancient Greek history openly professed for Spartan methods. Are we to deduce that this feeling is becoming more generalised than we have been led to think? Or are we to deduce that when the Socialist Party, for example, make a great show of vomiting the Communists from their midst, they are quite mistaken in imagining that they are dealing with an unimportant minority, and that there are far more Englishmen in favour of a Communist régime than they ever dreamed of? In a word, what do non-voters want? To see their institutions changed, or to see them abolished? Or is it necessary to launch out on a third theory? These two that I have mentioned seem to me the only conceivable ones if we assume that the voter is interested in what happens to him and to his country. But what if this apathy I speak of is due to quite different causes? What if the granting of almost universal franchise has fallen on stony ground? And if that is now the case, since we must suppose that, in view of the passion once expressed for the privilege in question, such was not originally the case, why has the ground become stony?

For as brief a time as possible, I should like your Lordships to consider with me the results of this quasi-universal franchise that exists since 1927 in England to-day. Whatever may have been the tactical reasons for conferring it on the millions that inhabit this island, the basic one was clearly that the levelling of fortunes and privileges and the spread of education made it both possible and desirable for everyone from the lowest to the highest to have their say in government of the people, for the people, by the people. But whereas even as late as a hundred years ago, the relative simplicity of a life untroubled by the problems of to-day would have made such a thing both simple and desirable, now by an unkind twist of fate, the immense complexity of these problems, thanks to the vast changes in the face of the world due to unforeseen scientific discoveries, makes this virtually impossible for all but a sprinkling of human beings. (I am presuming, of course, that our present mode of government still exists and ought to exist.) The rich man, as far as voting is concerned, has by now only one advantage over the poor man, and that is that he has more leisure in which to discover what he is voting about. As far as education goes, it is probable that, save in exceptional cases, that which a rich man receives does not any better fit him to express a useful opinion about the way he should be governed than that which is open to the poor man.

The materialist civilisation represented principally by what are crudely known as the Anglo-Saxon countries has, ever since the days when Calvin first enunciated the principle, set itself two ideals: the first that each individual should strive to achieve material success for himself, and the second, which is a later corollary of the first, that even those who do not succeed should have their standard of life raised for them. The ordinary man, therefore, after receiving enough education to push him into a profession, goes into it, succeeds in it, in which case he has been taught to think it natural that part of his earnings shall be taken from him to be spent on making life more agreeable for the less successful, or else does not succeed, in which case he becomes a recipient instead of a provider. In any case, the lives of both are taken up with the struggle for existence; and meanwhile, during the last fifty years or so, these lives have both been completely transformed by an entirely unforeseen element, a positive torrent of practical scientific inventions which make a modern State about as much like one of a hundred years ago as a hay-wain was like the newest Ford car. Add to this the frightful pace of modern existence, the fatigue engendered by the noise and rush of city life, the mass of cheap amusements thrown by ingenious purveyors at the crowd, the encouragement to hurry even through such largely increased leisure as has been made possible by machines and shorter hours of work, and the efforts made by the popular Press to convince John Citizen that it is much more important to be entertained than instructed, and you find yourself confronted with a population which is no more capable of understanding what is really happening round it than a child of two is capable of driving an aeroplane.

The result is that more and more of these automata of to-day begin to resign themselves to confining their interest to the struggles and satisfactions of their everyday lives. Poor creatures, they are much too tired and stupefied by this brave new world to do otherwise! What wonder, then, that, in view particularly of the groaning and creaking of the whole machine itself, thanks to the terrible competition between countries and the growth of exacerbated nationalism, the average man becomes little by little a puppet in the hands of whatever power is able to make use of him? And as far as he is concerned, what particular difference in the end, is there for him between being "run" by a Parliament or a dictator, except that in the first case he can talk, and in the second, he cannot? I suggest that the root of the matter is there. Over half the electorate is, for no fault of its own, simply not in a fit condition to understand the real issues of modern life, the way in which it has changed and is constantly changing. It knows little or nothing about the past, and has no idea how the future ought to be organised, for it and by it; and at the same time, it is still empowered to give its opinion, an opinion formed only by a demi-education and by whatever necessities or passions influence it.

It is here that I consider that any Government which professes to attach importance to individual judgments and to the real well-being of individuals ought to step in—and I do not need to remind anyone that there are Governments existing to-day that do not profess this. For man cannot live by bread alone, and as far as every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God is concerned, the State has, for better or for worse, been obliged to replace the Deity in many respects, since humanity has decided to renounce the primitive simplicity of Christian life and to order its own affairs in a more complicated manner. Indeed, of the two ways, apart from the material side, in which the level of a civilisation may be raised—the moral and the intellectual—the first, though it is of vast importance, can no longer he sufficient; for even if a change of heart can work certain miracles, no change of heart can control the colossal complications of the machine modern existence represents—on which machine there is clearly no question of going back in any sense of the word. The civilisation we have evolved is with us for good and all, unless of course, it collapses; and if it collapses, it will be because Governments will not have taken the necessary trouble to prevent it. They have the power now, the power formerly exercised by monarchies or castes or even that last-deposed monarch, private finance, and the responsibility is theirs. In any case, however much we may dislike modern civilisation, its fall would lead to such a reign of gangsterism and barbarity as would hardly be considered preferable.

I suggest, therefore, that His Majesty's Government should begin to take two principles to heart. One is, that men cannot progress morally as a whole very far, except for isolated individuals, but intellectually, they can be propelled very far indeed. The second is that the best civilisations have been built up round cadres or frameworks of select individuals. Biology has shown that moral qualities are not inherited and that each human being starts his moral life from zero. It has also shown that as far as the brain is concerned, not only are intellectual qualities frequently inherited, but that the brain itself long outlasts the decay of the body and that old age has nothing like the effect on it that it has, say, on bones and arteries. It should be the State's business, therefore, gradually to form an electorate worthy of the name; and I repeat that I take it as being desirable that grown-up people should be treated as having a mind worth paying attention to, instead of being treated like children and ordered about.

Logic seems to indicate that there is only one means of doing this, and that is to make a vote something worth having, and if people either do not want it or do not deserve it, not to give it to them. To force people to vote, in their present condition, would be virtually useless. It would merely be to encourage what is happening now—that is to say, the state of affairs whereby wholly ignorant and unsuitable people are allowed to choose other hardly less ignorant, often just as unsuitable, but usually more ambitious and energetic people to govern them from the town next door or from Westminster; and the end of that is either demagogy, which has been historically shown to herald the decline of all civilisations, or else the apathy we have seen exists, which usually leads in the end to an authoritarian régime. What is needed is a framework of people who know what they are voting about; and I would definitely propose that so as to begin to form it, everyone should be required to show that they do know before they are allowed to vote. We have already in existence one such parallel framework which does not attract much attention, but has imperceptibly and silently become indispensable to the modern machine. You may consider the Civil Service to be a costly and cumbersome institution; but the fact remains that in England at least through all the vagaries of changing Governments and the discussions of principle, this corps of functionaries continues its invisible but essential work without which half our lives would be impossible, to say nothing of the life of the Government itself. Now, no one objects to a civil servant having to pass a pretty stiff examination before he is allowed to draw the taxpayer's money; in other words, being obliged to show that he understands something of what he is going to be expected to do. Why, then, should there be any objection to the voters of the electorate, who at present are also cogwheels, ipso facto, in the machinery of government, being made to pass some sort of examination before becoming entitled to influence their own lives and everyone else's lives?

But, as I have said, this is not possible at present; and that is where I consider the other part of the Government's duty in this matter commences. At present, only one person in a hundred, I should think, really takes the trouble to educate himself at all after the educational period of his youth and adolescence is over (if he receives an education); and of those, a smaller proportion still take the trouble to familiarize themselves with the complexity and diversity of modern life's real practical problems. I suggest that the Government should without delay give a greatly increased publicity to the existence of such organisations as have been already set up which aim at providing adult education, like, for instance, the British Institute of Adult Education, the Association for Education in Citizenship, the Workers Educational Association to which I know the Board of Education give regular grants, and the various educational facilities provided by the London County Council and certain other county councils, and all the numerous courses of lectures on political science and sociology and kindred subjects that are already at the public's disposition. What is really needed, of course, and what would enormously redound to any Government's credit, is the founding of an institution which I would call the Synthesis College. I lift the idea from Mr. H. G. Wells, who is, in my opinion, a great deal less Utopian in his ideas than people imagine. Such an institution would act as a coordinating instrument for all the vast store of knowledge accumulated in particular over the last fifty years, and it would make it its business to supply information on all the myriad subjects that the voter may find himself faced with in the formation of his opinion, and which concern him directly or indirectly, such as economics, sociology, scientific inventions, the history of civilisations, biology, geography (of which most of us are even now absurdly ignorant), statistics about health, about population, about wages, about diet, and so on.

May I give your Lordships an example of the sort of utility this institution could be made to have, an example for which I am indebted to an article by Commander Stephen King-Hall, the success of whose reasonably impartial weekly News-Letter I, for one, have welcomed as a comforting phenomenon in a dislocated world. The article states that: About a year ago the United States National Resources Committee issued a report on 'Technological Trends and their Social Implications' which was described as the first major attempt to show the kinds of new inventions which may affect living and working conditions in America in the next ten to twenty-five years. Its conclusions were of world wide importance. The committee compared the sudden adoption of inventions as the equivalent of an 'immigration of iron men' and they pointed out that although technical progress may create more jobs than the number which it destroys in the superseded industries and occupations, this is a poor consolation to the trained worker who may find himself either pushed down into a lower grade of employment or entirely displaced unless he can carry through, often well on in life, a series of exacting re-adjustments. The report observes that twenty-five years ago, the telephone, motor-car, aircraft, rayon, radio and film industries which are now dominant features in American life were still in the stage of relatively undeveloped inventions and the question is whether we may expect another half dozen inventions to spread with equally disturbing results during the next twenty years. It is practically impossible to predict the effect of specific inventions, but it is possible to foresee the general consequences of groups of inventions. For example, the group in which one can classify motor-cars, railway electrification, telephones, radio, cinema and chain stores have all tended to bring about (amongst other things) suburban types of development. As regards the social effects of inventions, stress is laid in the report upon 'four characteristic trends of modern manufacturing: (1) Toward continuous processes; (2) automatic operation; (3) use of registering devices; and (4) of controlling devices.' The last two of these may embody the new electric eye or ear—the photo-electric cell, combined with the vacuum tube and various automatic registering and controlling devices, and the televox, which sifts sounds, so that a door has been fitted to open only to the words "Open sesame" and machinery to stop on "hearing" the cry "Help!"' Sub-division of labour, which creates so many repetition jobs, paves the way to eliminating them by a suitable mechanism; 'the more monotonous a job has become the closer it is brought to abolition.' In the past, labour displacement by machinery has occurred principally in jobs where mere muscle was required, or where senses other than sight were concerned. Now, however, 'the photo-electric cell is doing an increasing number of tasks better than the most keen-eyed, skilful, faithful and tireless workman,' and all simple repetition jobs based upon seeing are in danger. … In the light of this information the American Committee recommended amongst other things the carrying out of a series of special studies of a few inventions which may soon be widely used with important social consequences, including the cotton picker, air-conditioning equipment, plastics, the photoelectric cell, synthetic rubber, prefabricated houses, television, facsimile transmission, steep-flight aircraft, and tray agriculture. So far as I know no action of this nature is being taken in Great Britain, but I suggest that it is one which might well occupy the attention of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Such, my Lords, is the type of immediately practical use to which such an institution as I have described could be put—an institution which, as Sir Josiah Stamp put it recently, "ought to be able to mobilise facts readily for common use." By a coincidence which for me, at any rate, was miraculous, I had only just arrived at this point in preparing my speech when I picked up the Times of April 23 and I read that forty distinguished men of science including the President of the Royal Society, the Director of the Rothamsted Experimental Agricultural Station, Sir F. Gowland Hopkins, Mr. H. G. Wells, Dr. Julian Huxley, Professor J. B. S. Haldane, and other leading representatives of sociology, economics and psychology, have all expressed their opinions in the pages of the scientific periodical Nature in favour of forming an organisation to study the social relations of science, and to go deeper into the repercussion which science has had upon social development. The same article also revealed to me that there already exists a recently formed National Institute of Economic and Social Research. It is such bodies as these to which I suggest that any Government ought to think it its duty to call the public's attention.

The only progress humanity has ever made as far as civilisation is concerned has been reached through the efforts of an élite. An élite of voters would, I have no doubt, return to power a Government worthy of the name. With the aid of the institutions already existing and in process of formation, such an élite—which would, of course, be open to everyone to aim at joining and which would therefore be as completely classless as any society beaten into a new shape by a totalitarian régime—could be arrived at in at any rate two generations and possibly earlier. To set on foot such an enterprise would be a triumph for any Government. In any case, I consider that to leave things as they are at present, that is to say, to leave demi-formed masses equipped with the power to select their representatives as they now do is to encourage all the worst elements of Parliamentary government, instead of the best. It is also not only to incur the contemptuous disregard and impertinences of other régimes that despise democracy, but to run the risk of falling eventually into the same errors as those régimes, with all that that entails.

If my suggestion for limiting the franchise is considered either too retrograde or too revolutionary, then the next best solution is clearly to let things run on as they are, but at least to provide these educational facilities that I have described; and if the worst comes to the worst, then as a final and desperate suggestion, I would propose that if at future Elections people are going to indulge in the luxury of not voting, they ought at least to be made to put on record their reasons for not voting, which would be highly instructive for everyone. I am also, of course, aware that there is a distinction to be made between voting in municipal and in Parliamentary elections, and that the same sort of training need not be necessary for both; but, in general, I consider the same principle to be applicable to both. I consider that the possession of both is worth having; I consider that it is the Government's business to make it more worth having than it is at present, and that it is even more serious for the Government to disregard this state of affairs than for voters themselves to accept it. "A democratic State." Mr. Eden said the other day, "depends for its successful working upon the corporate efforts of all its citizens." A Government which will insist on this will, I am sure, stand high in the estimation not only of present-day men and women, but of posterity as well. I beg to move.

Moved to resolve, That this House deplores the increasing apathy of the electorate as displayed in the voting at Parliamentary, and more particularly at municipal, elections, and considers that this is a grave menace to the survival of democratic institutions; and that His Majesty's Government should take measures to stimulate the interest of the public in the exercise of its traditional democratic rights.—(Lord Derwent.)


My Lords, I have to ask, not only for the indulgence which your Lordships' House always generously extends to a new member, but also for special sympathy in that my occupation in another place for twenty years and more has been such as to impose upon me an almost Trappist habit of silence which I find very great difficulty in breaking. But that experience has impressed me with the danger that has been brought to your Lordships' notice by the Motion which is now before the House. I am not presuming to suggest any such elaborate or long-distance solution as my noble friend has just put forward, but I am impressed by the danger of the situation, a danger that is constantly growing. I remember when I was first returned to the House of Commons over thirty years ago I was elected on a vote of over 90 per cent. of the electors. Now, as my noble friend has just reminded your Lordships, it is unusual to get anything over come 75 per cent. There have been cases where the total going to the poll has been something like 50 per cent., and the tendency is ever to decrease. In municipal affairs, of course, the figures are far worse.

I regard this as a matter of sufficient importance to demand the attention of Parliament at no distant date. I am aware that the superficial view is that it is of no importance, that majorities change, that Governments come in and go out in spite of the small polls, and that, after all, those who care to vote have the chance to elect their representatives. But there is a deeper significance behind this, and, as I see it, a very grave menace to our liberties. Let us suppose that the tendency goes on a very little further and it will be quite possible for a Government to be elected with a working majority on the votes of scarcely more than 20 per cent. of the electorate. If that happens I should regard it as a very dangerous situation. If we had either a Socialist or a Fascist Government and it proceeded to carry into legislation the pledges it had given and on which it had been returned, we should reach so dangerous a situation that it might very easily, and indeed might actually, lead to revolution. For consider what will be the attitude of those whose grievances are backed, as they will believe, by some 80 per cent. of the electorate. Are they going to submit to have their wishes overruled by what they will regard as a totally unrepresentative House of Commons? It will be no use relying on your Lordships' House to withstand an onslaught such as that. The danger is that, instead of relying on a Second Chamber to prevent such an occurrence, some dictator will arise who will claim to represent 80 per cent. or a very large majority of the electors of the country, who will sweep aside Parliamentary Government and in doing so will claim that he is acting in the interests of democracy.

I regard that as a very special danger at the present time, because once that happens we find that the electors are so terrified that they will not stand up against it. The experience in Austria the other day, as I was assured by a friend of mine who had been in that country, is that unless you are a very strong partisan indeed, when a dictator is in the offing you will vote on a plebiscite in his favour merely on the chance that he may be able to dominate your life hereafter. That is the danger, and to my mind it is a very real one. We have to consider whether there is a way out. I believe the real way out is somehow or another to induce the voter to exercise his franchise and to give his vote. You have to make him interested in politics, and I believe that can be done if you will give him the power to make his vote effective and not a mere futile walking to the polling station to put a cross against the name of a person who he knows has no possible chance of being returned to represent him. I believe—and here I differ from my noble friend—that this lack of interest is much less due to apathy than to the feeling that it is no use going to vote, that the trouble is merely wasted. What is the good of asking a Conservative to go and vote in South Wales, when no Conservative has a chance of being elected, or a member of the Labour Party in the South of England, where, except in a very few industrial areas, the voter might just as well save himself the trouble?

When you turn to municipal affairs I will take as an illustration the local government area in which we are situated at the present time, where 40,000 Municipal Reformers went to the poll and secured all the sixty seats and the 21,000 Labour voters have no representation at all. How can you expect voters to keep up an interest in circumstances like that? I am convinced that it is merely lack of opportunity that keeps voters from taking an interest. I have had recent experience of that in something which happened within my own Party in the last few months. I do not wish on this occasion to enter on controversial politics, but it happens that the Party with which I am associated launched a petition to protest against the rising cost of living, an important but not a Party issue. The response to that petition was not only instant but almost overwhelming. It became impossible to deal with the rush of people who were anxious to take their part in making that protest. From that I think I am right in deducing that the voter is ready to take an interest if you arouse that interest and can make him feel that it is worth while to take the amount of trouble that is involved in going to the poll.

Then comes the problem how to make it worth while. I suggest that the only way in which we can do it, apart from the somewhat long-distance solution put forward by my noble friend, the only immediate way, is to give him a real opportunity of making his weight felt when he does vote, to give him an opportunity of voting for somebody who will at any rate have a chance of being returned. I submit that, if not the only, at any rate the obvious and simplest method of doing this is by the institution of some form of proportional representation, or something of that sort. I am aware, of course, that there are many drawbacks and that a great many arguments can be put forward against proportional representation: that it leads to constituencies of unwieldy size, or to difficulty in dealing with by-elections. These are mere details of machinery which can be got over. Nor do I regard as of any great importance the argument, which is very popular on the platform, that proportional representation would lead to a Parliament filled with cranks. I remember that the first Parliament in which I had the honour to sit, in 1906—many noble Lords here may have had the same experience—was described at the time as a Parliament of cranks; but it was the most interesting Parliament in which I have sat, and it was far from being the least effective. Therefore I am not to be terrified by the thought that it may be possible under proportional representation to secure representation in Parliament or on a local authority of views which are not necessarily those of the unthinking mass.

These difficulties are, of course, to be faced, but they do not apply in anything like the same degree to local elections as they do to Parliamentary elections. I would suggest that we could, without any risk, make a most useful experiment in applying proportional representation to the municipal elections and so inducing voters to take an interest which is all too lacking at the present time. I am fortified in this view by the knowledge that in other countries proportional representation has, in spite of assertions to the contrary, worked with success. In Belgium, in thedemocratic countries of Scandinavia, and even in New York, proportional representation is successfully at work. I might perhaps be permitted to remind your Lordships that we have taken it upon ourselves to incur much graver risks by imposing it in part on a much less suitable constituency by the Government of India Act, which has recently become law. If we can take this risk so far afield and on so much less favourable a ground, surely it is right that we should take steps to meet this evil, to face this danger, before it becomes too great; that we should follow the examples which I have ventured to put before your Lordships and take what to me seems to be the only opportunity of escaping from a situation which is not only, as this Motion says, of the utmost gravity at the present time, but which as time goes on becomes ever more dangerous.


My Lords, although conscious of your Lordships' very much wider knowledge and experience upon a question such as this, I would ask your indulgence for a few moments on this the first occasion upon which I have had the honour of addressing you in this House. Certain aspects of the Motion—aspects which in essence are not complicated but extremely simple—appear to me, as the noble Lord who has just preceded me has pointed out, urgently to require emphasis in the interests of the voter and of democratic principles. As has already been implied, it would seem necessary that before measures can be taken, as the Motion puts it, "to stimulate the interest of the public in the exercise of its traditional democratic rights," the cause of the increasing apathy of the electorate, which I think none of your Lordships will doubt and to which this Motion refers, should first be considered and, if possible, remedied.

There is little wonder that the voter has become apathetic when one considers the results he has obtained by the present way in which the democratic vote is being used, results which in the main are contrary to his own interest and contrary to those results which he really desires. Instead of increased freedom there is imposed upon him increasing taxation and debt, and constantly increasing bureaucratic control over his life and his property. Instead of prosperity he has an increasing cost of living and the fear of another possibly approaching trade depression. Instead of peace he is compelled to sacrifice his standards of living in the interest of feverish preparations for war. Instead of distribution of the enormous plenty which modern scientific methods of production have made available, he sees the production of food, clothes and other goods, of which in millions of cases he is in urgent need, being restricted or even destroyed in order to maintain nothing more real than an out-of-date system of debt finance. If the voter is to take a lively interest either in local or national government, he must be taught not by words but by that same practical experience as, used in an opposite direction, has brought about this present apathy. He must learn not only by what constitutional action he can get the results he really desires, but also what are the limitations of practical democracy. At present he has not learnt—though I have good reason to believe that now at last bitter experience is rapidly teaching him—that voting for persons, parties or technical methods will not produce for him the results that he desires. He still votes, and naturally is encouraged in it by certain vested interests, not for results but for alternative methods by which he is to be taken to a destination which is not truthfully disclosed to him and about which he is never consulted.

The principal limitation of democracy appears to be that it can only be usefully applied to a demand by a majority of voters for certain practical results, which results must of course be clearly defined and easily understood. But when it comes to the technical methods by which such results are to be achieved, it is clearly no longer within the scope of a useful democratic vote. While 99 per cent., probably, of any average group of voters will be able to give a correct answer as to their desire for a given result, 99 per cent. can equally be relied upon to give an incorrect answer as to the best technical method of achieving that result. Methods, surely, can only be correctly decided by technical experts, but it is nevertheless possible for voters, having demanded any physically possible result—and, my Lords, I would call your attention to the distinction between a physically possible result and a financially possible one, on the ground that whatever is physically possible can, if ordered by the voters, be made financially possible by financial experts—it is possible for the electorate to hold the technical experts responsible for the adequacy or otherwise of the methods they employ for its alleged achievement.

I am convinced that the secret of making democracy a successful actuality, instead of merely a nominal and idealistic pretence, as, unfortunately, it appears to be at present, lies in the realisation by the voter that no matter how expert he may be in any particular technical matter, when it comes to voting, to democratic voting, he can get what he wants only by demanding results and not by allowing his purpose to be diverted or disintegrated by arguments about methods.

It may be said that the voter does not know, and certainly cannot formulate, the results he wants. Although I believe that such a statement, while partly true, is too often a conscious or unconscious mental evasion—because it should surely be one of the duties of a representative to find out and to help formulate clearly the desires of those he represents—there are at any rate certain results which an overwhelming majority of voters, if given any opportunity of being unitedly articulate, would undoubtedly say that they do not want. For instance, higher rates, higher taxation, increased financial difficulties of maintaining a decent standard of living occurring together with artificial restriction of production. Yet in a nominally democratic country these results are imposed upon the voter against his will, and, ironically enough, through the very medium of his democratic vote, not because these unwanted results are necessary for him, not because they are inexorable laws of nature, but solely because they are necessary for the maintenance of the power of certain vested interests, particularly the financial one, behind the institutions, in which, although he has a democratic vote as regards administration, he has no actual control whatsoever in regard to ultimate policy.

I would suggest, therefore, that the apathy of the voter cannot usefully be overcome by any artificial means, such as—with all due deference to my noble friend Lord Gifford—that of compulsory voting or the like, but only by finding out and giving the voter the results which a majority really desire; that is, increased prosperity and economic freedom in security to lead the sort of life which he himself wishes to live, whatever that may be, together with decreased taxation and debt, and decreased bureaucratic control over his life, his property and his business.

I feel convinced that if His Majesty's Government base upon these principles such measures as they may some day take for the actualisation of democracy—that is, upon the principle that it is the function of the voter to dictate policy and demand what results he desires, and that he defeats his own purpose by getting lost in arguments about technical methods of administration; also, that it is the function of the Government to see that he gets the results which he demands—then little difficulty will be found, as this Motion puts it, in stimulating "the interest of the public in the exercise of its traditional democratic rights"; for then, and only then, the individual voter (and it is, I submit, the individual voter who matters) will learn by experience that, in association with others, his power to demand whatever physically possible results he wants is a living reality, which is greater than that of any anti-social forces which may now be seeking to enslave him to their own ends. Then, moreover, civilisation will be saved from what I believe is one of its greatest present dangers, the domination of the individual by institutions, instead of the reverse, and hence the domination by the vested interests which at present control the policy of institutions.


My Lords, I desire to support the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, and I hope your Lordships will forgive any shortcomings on my part as this is my maiden speech. Indeed I crave special indulgence from your Lordships this afternoon, because what chance has a poor bachelor like myself among the bevy of "maidens" who have invaded the House to-day? I think your Lordships will agree that the strength of this House lies in the special knowledge which various members of the House possess. Among its members there are those who have had an opportunity of studying, at first hand, almost every aspect of life in the British Empire. I myself have resided for six years in Australia, and I have had an opportunity of studying the conditions in that Dominion, and particularly in the State of New South Wales. There are many members of your Lordships' House who have served in various parts of the Empire as Governors representing His Majesty, but perhaps there are not so many who have served in a humbler capacity. I was for four years on the staff of the Governor of New South Wales and had a unique opportunity of seeing official life and life throughout the State. I then retired from official circles and took a private position, so that I was able to look on affairs not only through the official glass but also as an ordinary private citizen of New South Wales. I found that one thing which pleased me enormously was the fact that the people there did not alter their demeanour towards me in any way when I ceased to be a rather exalted being from Government House and became an ordinary humble citizen. In fact, the first time I went in my ordinary capacity to an official function and, instead of going in state with escort and outriders, I went in the usual way, the police sergeant on duty had a look into my car and said, "Oh, well, Sir, we must continue to look after you now you have come down in the world."

I think in this matter we can learn something from the Dominions. Our Dominions are very keen and anxious to learn from the Mother Country, but I do think to-day there are many occasions when the reverse is the case. For some years voting has been compulsory in various parts of Australia, particularly in New South Wales. The enrolment of voters was made compulsory in 1921, and compulsory voting began in 1930. In Queensland compulsory voting began as far back as 1915, in Victoria in 1926, and in Tasmania in 1928. It is common knowledge that Australia is a very democratic country, and I do not think that anybody would ever say that totalitarian methods are practised there. Yet Australia has led the way in compulsory voting, and also—I may mention in passing—in a matter which is of great importance at the present time, compulsory military training. That does not exist now but it was in existence for many years in Australia. The effect of this compulsory voting has been very marked indeed. During the voluntary period the figures for various elections ranged from 82 per cent. to as low as 56 per cent. of the electorate. But since compulsory voting has been in force there has been an average of over 95 per cent. of the electors going to the poll. The detailed figures in the three Elections since the Act was passed are:—1930, 94.9 per cent.; 1932, 96.4 per cent.; 1935, 95.8 per cent. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, in the figures which he gave was only able to mention one occasion when the figures reached 90 per cent. and the average was only 75 per cent.

In addition to compulsory voting, the system in New South Wales makes it as easy as possible for the voter to record his vote. Absent voters may poll at any polling place; people w ho are infirm or who are distant over ten miles from a polling station or are on a journey may record their votes by post. The noble Lord, Lord Rea, mentioned the subject of proportional representation. New South Wales has not gone as far as that, but it has preferential voting, so that every voter can feel that even if the candidate whom he wishes to place first on the list is unsuccessful, he can help to a certain extent by getting his second or even the third choice elected. By these two means—by making it easy to vote and by the compulsory system which has been a deterrent to laziness—the results which I have mentioned have been brought about. The penalties are not at all heavy. I have here the Act on the subject, and it is not in any way harshly administered.

I should like to mention just two clauses in the Act. The first clause says: Within three months after the close of the poll at every election the Electoral Commissioner— (a) shall send by post to each elector whose name indicated as aforesaid appears on such marked roll … a notice in the prescribed form notifying that he has failed to record his vote at the election and requiring him to state the true reason why he has failed so to vote. The elector has then every opportunity of replying and any reasonable excuse is accepted, that is to say illness or absence from the State, and it is only in very gross cases that a fine is enforced. It is provided in another clause that the words "valid and sufficient excuse" include an honest belief on the part of the voter that abstention from voting is part of his religious duty. The penalties are quite small. The maximum is £2, but except in very aggravated cases a fine of not more than 10s. is the usual penalty. I will not take up your Lordships' time any further, but I do feel that in view of the laziness and lack of interest on the part of the electors here, Great Britain can profit by the example of one of our Dominions.


My Lords, I think we must all be very gratified at the three maiden speeches that we have heard this afternoon, and I hope that the noble Lords who have so greatly contributed to the debate will try their mettle on future occasions. The noble Lord, Lord Derwent, who introduced the discussion to-day, suggested in his very interesting speech that the voter should pass an examination before he registers his vote. I do not think that he is very practical. I wonder whether it would also be suggested that members of both Houses, before they take their seats, should also pass an examination. I am afraid some of us would have forgotten all we knew in attempting to pass! I may remind your Lordships that there are certain, not Government, but other educational facilities for the voters by means of propaganda. On our side there is Ashridge, founded in honour of that great Conservative Prime Minister, Mr. Bonar Law; and also in London there is a good deal of propaganda on the part of the Socialist Party. There is the London News which I read regularly every week, with which Lord Snell is well conversant, and which is in the hands of many electors in this great Metropolis. After all, our education, by common consent, is improving year by year, and we are following out what was truly said by Mr. Lowe when compulsory education was introduced as long ago as 1870: "We must educate our masters." That is a process which is still going on.

I well remember when I first went into the House of Commons a great many years ago that I was studying hard at a Blue-book when Dr. Tanner, a well-known Irish Member of Parliament, said, "What are you doing studying Blue-books? Are you going to make a speech? For God's sake, if you are going to make a speech, never study a Blue-book or give any statistics." I am afraid this afternoon I cannot quite follow that advice. Time is getting on, and I know your Lordships are more interested at the moment in coal than in this other important question, but I should like to draw your Lordships' attention very briefly to the fact that the figures at Parliamentary Elections are not so bad as is generally supposed. In the last few years the lowest poll for a General Election was in 1923 when 74 per cent. of the electors recorded their vote. In 1924 80 per cent. voted. I do not think that is bad. In 1935 nearly 75 per cent. voted. Of course, where we do find low voting at Parliamentary Elections is at by-elections, and since this Parliament began there have been a great many by-elections. On the other hand, there is some cause for satisfaction, because at Greenock 83 per cent. of the electors went to the poll. The South is always behind in this matter. At Farnham only 50 per cent. voted, and the worst poll at a by-election was recently at North Islington where only 40 per cent. went to the poll. That caused a great deal of comment at the time, but it was owing to the state of the register that so many electors could not vote. Twenty-three per cent. of the electors had gone away during the period since the register had been compiled. I will give the figures if your Lordships will bear with me for one moment. There were over 200,000 electors, and no fewer than 47,000 had gone out of the district.

That is a thing the Government might remedy, and I will make a suggestion on that point before I sit down. Though at Parliamentary Elections the voting might be better, it is nothing to despair of, but in municipal elections it really is very bad. In the boroughs—I am only taking the boroughs—the Northern part of England always seems to vote well, but the South is very much behind. Accrington, 75 per cent.; Burnley, 72 per cent.; Morpeth, 71 per cent.; and then we get Plymouth, 41 per cent.; Cambridge and Rochester, 40 per cent.; and Luton 31 per cent. There is, therefore, an enormous divergence at borough elections in the provinces. When we come to London the position is far worse. In the London boroughs in 1928 only 32 per cent. voted, and in 1937 35 per cent. For the London County Council in 1928, 35 per cent. voted, and in 1937, a comparatively high poll, 43 per cent. I know Lord Snell will agree that that is not a very good record for the electorate. But there are special reasons for that in London because of the way the population shifts. People go from one part of London to another, and, as everyone knows, it is a big place. If they are not living in the district where they are going to vote they naturally do not take the same interest as people do who live in the same borough all their lives.

This is the suggestion I should like to make to the Government. I believe a good deal of the difficulty could be got over if they would change some of the dates of registration. There is a two months' lag between the last date for objections and the publication of the register. Some time about the middle of August is the last date for objections, and that applies not only to London but to the whole country. In the middle of August the last claim for objections comes before the registration officer, and the register is not published until October 15. If you have an election, as we do, in London on November 1, and as all the country does for municipal elections, that does not give sufficient time to election agents and others concerned with elections to find out where the electors are living and notify them. I should like to suggest to the Government, especially for the sake of London, that the register should be compiled and brought up to date on October 1. There has never seemed to me any reason why that cannot be done. Then you would be able to notify all those concerned, and in the case of those who have gone away send them proper notice instead of the rush and hurry which now prevails in the short time of a fortnight which is available. That period is too short when you are dealing with such huge electorates as exist at the present day.

Another alternative has been suggested. I cannot say I am particularly in love with compulsory voting. I think it would be difficult. It may be a solution one day, but there is another suggestion that comes from America. In America people have to go down to the town hall and register themselves. If they do not want to vote, they are off the register. Your Lordships are well aware that in any society, if you get something for nothing, you do not take the same interest as you would if you had to pay for it. Take, for example, a political organisation, if any of the members do not contribute, they are on the whole apathetic. I am glad the noble Lord, Lord Rea, who has great experience in this matter, spoke upon it. He knows as well as I do that a spoon-fed constituency is no good at all. On the other hand, if the electors are interested in politics and contribute to one side or the other a small proportion of the expenses incurred so as to show their interest, you will get much more life in the elections. In the same way I am not at all sure that if you did ask the electors or their representatives to go to the town hall, as they do in America and register their names, instead of continuing the present practice of sending a list out in June for them to fill up as they please, you would not get them much more keen to vote. There has been another suggestion that you should have the registrations twice a year. That, as your Lordships know, would cost another £500,000, and I do not think it would produce any really good results. Besides, half a million pounds in these days is not to be despised. I am not going to follow the noble Lords who have spoken about proportional representation. That is an arguable-subject, and would take up a lot of time, and there would have to be a great deal of discussion in both Houses. I want to make this practical suggestion to the Government. It is one that has been urged over and over again, and it is that the register should be put into force a fortnight earlier and published. That would give a great deal of help, especially at municipal elections, to secure the desired result.


My Lords, it is my happy task before replying to the Motion made by the noble Lord opposite to offer on behalf of His Majesty's Government our sincere congratulations to the three noble Lords who delivered their maiden speeches this afternoon. I feel sure that we on this Bench at any rate will look forward to the time when they will have the opportunity of presenting their views to us on other matters. The Motion which the noble Lord has made is one that calls attention to a matter which is undoubtedly of very great importance to a democratic country. The success of our method of government in Great Britain is perhaps largely due to the close touch which is kept between Members of Parliament and their constituencies, and I think that this helps towards good government by keeping the electorate well informed upon matters which come before Parliament during the week. Any falling off of this interest on the part of the electors in public affairs would, therefore, be of very grave concern.

With regard to Parliamentary Elections there does appear to be very little reason to charge the electors with apathy, and as far as I can see there are no grounds for believing that this apathy is increasing. I have many figures in front of me, but perhaps if I say this it will be sufficient. In the last six General Elections—those from 1922 onwards—the proportion of those who cast their votes to the total number of names on the register of electors has been between 74 per cent. and 80 per cent. Now allowing for the fact that a register is compiled on June I each year and comes into force on October 15, so that it is practi- cally four and a half months old, there must always be a number of electors who are unavoidably prevented from one cause or another from recording their votes. I think the failure of many of these people to exercise their power can be accounted for by reasons other than indifference. I am informed that it was only quite recently that in Kingston-on-Thames about ten thousand people out of a total electorate of between 75,000 and 80,000 had ceased to be qualified during the preceding year. At the last General Election—I take this as an example—in the Rhondda division of South Wales the electors had to choose between voting for a Labour candidate and a Communist candidate, and I think it must be assumed that a number preferred not to vote at all.

I come now to the municipal elections. The percentage of electors who record their votes at these elections is, I know, unfortunately much smaller than the number voting at Parliamentary elections. I have had experience myself in London, and I agree that it is a matter which calls for great concern. There are no statistics available for the country as a whole, but in London since 1922—that is to say, at the last four elections of county councillors and the last six elections of borough councilors—the percentage has generally been between 30 and 40. I think it is to be very much regretted that a keener interest is not shown by the people not only in London but in the provinces in municipal elections, but the remedy would not appear to lie so much in action on the part of His Majesty's Government but, it appears to me, in greater activity among the Parties contesting these elections. I know the difficulties full well, but I think it would be very rash for the Government to enter into consultation with the local authorities to improve the electorate at these municipal elections. It is a matter entirely for the local authorities and I hope that this debate to-day may at any rate have served a useful purpose to that extent. The noble Lord, Lord Gifford, in an interesting maiden speech, gave us certain particulars concerning Australia which I feel certain appealed to many of your Lordships. I have no more to say upon this matter to-night, but I do think that the debate may have served a very useful purpose towards encouraging the electors to vote at municipal elections. I hope the noble Lord will withdraw the Motion that stands on the Paper.


My Lords, I should like to say that I am very thankful for the support which I have received. We have had many and varied suggestions put forward as efficacious remedies for the state of affairs which the noble Earl who answered for the Government at any rate admitted exists. In addition to what have been described as my long-range proposals, we have had proportional representation advocated, and the noble Earl, Lord Tankerville, has suggested that voting for methods should be replaced by voting for results; while the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, expressed himself in favour of compulsory voting. In addition, we have had from the noble Lord, Lord jessel, a great deal of interesting information about the question of deficiencies in the register. I confess that, although I welcome the admission of the noble Earl who replied for the Government that the state of affairs which I have described exists, it seems to me that I am entitled to be discontented so far as the local government question is concerned, and also to be discontented that the only suggestion the Government will make is not to bother the local authorities about it but to let them settle the matter for themselves. I think, frankly, that that is an extremely inadequate reply from the Government. I only hope that in the picture I painted in my speech I was not playing the role of Cassandra, and that all the various ills which I prophesied, and which I find other people in the country as a whole have prophesied if the Government do not take their proper part in this matter, will not eventuate. I can only hope that the outlook is not indeed so bad as that. But in the circumstances I think the only thing that I can do is to withdraw my Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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