I beg to move, "That leave be given to introduce a Bill to authorise the introduction of proportional representation in municipal elections; and for other purposes connected therewith."
The object of the Bill is to confer on municipal boroughs the right, under certain conditions, to adopt, in place of the present system of election, a system of proportional representation. It is not proposed to make the change compulsory. Unless it commends itself to three-fifths of the members present and voting at a council meeting after due notice, no change can take place. It must, therefore, command a wide general assent before this Bill can conic into operation in any borough. To ensure that all members of the council are informed beforehand that the question is coming up for discussion and decision, special notice of any resolution must be given not less than one month beforehand. This will afford plenty of time for full discussion in the Press and in public meeting and otherwise, which will enable councillors before voting to ascertain public feeling in regard to the matter, and if opposition exists, to enable this to be fully expressed and organised. The change, therefore, is unlikely to be effected, unless it is desired by a large majority not only of councillors but also of their constituents.
If, after this opportunity of becoming seized of the merits and of local circumstances and opinion, the resolution is passed by a majority of three to two, the practice of electing annually one-third of the members will be discontinued, and triennial general elections will take their place. I think this all to the good. Too frequent elections kill public interest, especially when only partial in character. The proportional system will almost certainly bring back after each election a large number of former councillors who desire to continue their services to the 1290 community. If so, it will secure the continuity of personal service and of experienced administration aimed at by the system of retiring only one-third annually. It will also allow sufficient time between elections for fresh questions to arise that will secure more widespread interest in the elections themselves. But should results prove unsatisfactory the Bill provides for a reversion to the old system after three years by resolution of the council passed by the same majority as that by 'which the change had been effected. It is, therefore, purely experimental, and if the community it affects desire, can be abandoned by a simple process involving no cost or trouble.
The rest of the Bill simply details the method and machinery for elections under a proportional system, and the Schedules give rules for counting votes, and a form of the ballot paper. Shortly stated, the proposal is this: The ballot paper will, as DOW, contain the names of all candidates who have been duly nominated. Every elector will be entitled to one vote only. This ho will indicate by writing the number I against the name of the candidate of his choice. But he may also place the numbers 2, 3, etc.. against the names of others, according to his preference for them, These second, third, and fourth preferences will only be counted if on the first count enough candidates to fill all the seats do not secure the quota of votes necessary to elect them. This quota is arrived at by dividing the total number of ballot papers by one more than the number of seats to be filled. Thus in a ward represented by five members, any candidate who secured one-sixth of the votes given, plus one, would be elected. If he obtained more than the quota, then the second preferences on his surplus papers would be divided amongst candidates who had not secured a quota, and, if necessary, the lower preferences would be divided until the full number of members had been elected. In this way several important results would follow. No party ticket could secure the monopoly of representation in any ward to the complete exclusion of other parties. Minorities would secure representation in proportion to their strength. Every ward, therefore, would almost certainly be contested. Every voter would be represented, if not by the candidate of his first choice, then by one to whom he had given his preference. No votes would be wasted, and the sense of injustice felt by the elector who 1291 is practically disfranchised under the present system would disappear. Effective opposition and criticism would be ensured on public bodies. Members would be less dependent than now on the party caucus, and more free to exercise an independent and unbiassed judgment on the administrative questions which came before them, checked only by the knowledge that their action was subject to the approval of their constituents at the next election. You would thus combine real representation with real freedom of discussion, and prevent machine-made majorities on councils from riding roughshod over the convictions and desires of large minorities in the constituencies.
If these results are desirable, no one with a knowledge of the facts will deny that the present system fails utterly to secure them. To show this I need only refer to the borough council elections in London last November. In four metropolitan boroughs the minorities were completely unrepresented — Chelsea, Westminster, Lewisham, and Fulham. In Fulham, 30,339 Moderates secured every seat, whilst 20,154 Progressives and 2,420 Labour and Socialists did not secure one. In Lambeth, 92,870 Moderates secured fifty-six seats and 48,325 Progressives two. In Battersea, however, owing to the erratic way in which the system works, 47,759 Moderates secured only twenty-four seats, whilst 37,035 Progressives secured thirty seats—i.e., a minority of 12,000 votes obtained a majority of six seats. I wonder if that is the secret of the opposition to this improvement of my right hon. Friend the President of the Local Government Board who represents that borough in this House? In many metropolitan borough councils besides the four named practically no opposition exists, though in the constituencies there are large masses of voters whose opposition finds no voice. Now effective criticism is the breath of life to representative government. In its absence triumphant and unexposed majorities have every inducement to domineer over their opponents, and to do in the dark what they would not attempt in the glare of publicity. This involves danger of corruption and of all the evils for which publicity is the one corrective. Publicity can only be secured by effective opposition. Without it the electors cannot be informed, and in the absence of information they can neither be interested nor vote intelligently.
1292 The result is that many wards go uncontested, and apathy, the greatest foe to pure and effective government, prevails. This is inevitable where minorities know that contests are hopeless because a disciplined and organised majority can deprive them of all representation. It would be impossible under a proportional system, which, by giving minorities an effective voice in government, would almost certainly revive public interest, make local government more popular, attract to the councils men of a higher type, less fettered to party, and more devoted to the public good, and thus make our municipal institutions more useful and more wisely directed to beneficent ends than ever before. The need of a proportional system of some kind is growingly felt outside Parliament. It has been approved in conferences of the trade unions and I.L.P., by the Young Liberals, and the London Reform Union. Some metropolitan boroughs—namely, Wands-worth and Camberwell, and provincial boroughs, namely, Carnarvon, have passed resolutions in its favour. The Insurance Commissioners for England and Ireland, the National Union of Railwaymen, National Union of Clerks and B. M. Association have adopted it. It is in operation in Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden, and Denmark for municipal, and in Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Wurtemberg, and Tasmania for parliamentary elections—
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Chancellor, Sir William Anson, Sir William Bull, Mr. Burt, Mr. George Greenwood, Mr. Mackinder, Mr. Newman, Mr. George Roberts, Mr. Snowden, and Mr. Wiles. Presented accordingly, and read the first time; to be read a second time To-morrow, and to be printed. [Bill 307.]