HL Deb 21 May 1919 vol 34 cc747-61

LORD PARMOOR rose to call attention to recent elections held under the principle of proportional representation, and to ask His Majesty's Government whether they are prepared to take such measures as would permit the application of this principle in county and municipal elections.

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, I have called the attention of the member of the Government who will answer my Question in a special way to its terms. It is to ask His Majesty's Government whether they are prepared to take such measures as would permit the application of the principle of proportional representation in county and municipal elections, and when I come to the history of this matter in your Lordships' House I think that your Lordships will realise why I have put the Question in that form. I am not asking for a Bill which would compel elections on the principle of proportional representation, but the big municipalities and others should have power to conduct their elections on that principle should they elect to do so. It is not necessary to say more than a few words on the general principle of proportional representation, because, as your Lordships are aware, this House by an overwhelming majority assented to the principle at the time of the recent Franchise Act.


May I interrupt? The noble and learned Lord talks of big municipalities, but the Question refers also to county elections.


I use the two words. There is a distinction in the two. I am much obliged to the noble Viscount for calling my attention to it, if there is any misapprehension. I ask for the application both to county and municipal elections. The reason why I have done that I will explain in greater detail by and by. There is one point on the principle of proportional representation about which I want to say a few words. We often talk about majority and. minority representation, but I do not think that this is the true way of approaching the question of proportional representation. The true principle is that you give effectively the true weight to the principle of "one vote one value" if you apply proportional respresentation. The question really is of the effectiveness of the voting power which in the ordinary Franchise Act is purported to be given.

I will illustrate what I mean, because the effect has been very marked in recent elections. I will take five constituencies with 100 voters in each. It is clear that 49 per cent. of the electors in each of those constituencies might be practically disfranchised; that is to say, in each case you might have a minority of forty-nine and a majority of fifty-one. Not only is that arithmetically accurate, but as a matter of fact there are many elections in which the result has conic near that standard. In other words, there have been a large number of elections over areas such as Wales, for instance, where 35 per cent. of the electorate are left without representation. Just compare with that, in order to deal with the question of principle, the conditions if you have proportional representation. You would then have one area of 500 voters electing five members, and the largest number of persons who could be disfranchised or could have non-effective votes would be only 16 per cent instead of 49 per cent. of the whole. In other words, you could only have non-effective votes to the extent of eighty, instead of non-effective votes to the extent of 245.

What I desire to insist upon is that it is no good giving votes under conditions where they cannot be exercised. It is a parody to give a vote on the one hand and make it ineffective on the other; and the advocates of proportional representation have always argued that besides giving a vote on paper you should give such an electoral method that it can be to the largest possible extent effectively exercised. Before I go to the effect of recent elections conducted on the principle of proportional representation, let me give illustrations of the effect of the present system. I do not suppose that any one is contented with the results of the last General Election, if you really desire to have the representative principle properly enforced. Some people, no doubt, desire that you should not have real representation, but if you desire the representative principle to be the basis of our Constitution the recent Election shows conclusively that you do not obtain that result under existing conditions.

Let me remind your Lordships of the numbers; and I am only taking the question of contested elections, because when you get into uncontested elections you are in the region of surmise. The Coalition Party, as it was called, polled 5,564,318 votes, and their opponents, the non-Coalition Party, polled 4,132,912 votes. Now as a matter of fact the seats obtained by the Coalition Party numbered 428, and those obtained by the non-Coalition Party only 81. If you bad had an electoral method which would have made votes effective and enabled persons to give votes so that their votes could really be felt, the result would have been this—that the Coalition, instead of 428, would have numbered 292, and their opponents, instead of 81, would have numbered 217. Therefore the majority—which is now a contorted majority—of 347 would, under these circumstances, only have been a majority of 75. Surely any one who desires real representation, and who believes that as we were pioneers in introducing the representative principle so we ought to be pioneers in establishing it on a sound basis, cannot be contented with such a result as that.

Let me apply it to the figures in the case of Ireland. I think they are very striking. The number of votes polled by the Sinn Feiners was 495,760. I am taking, again, only the contested cases. The Unionists and Nationalists together polled a larger number of votes than that—namely, 515,578. Of course, the Unionists and Nationalists combined ought under those conditions to have had a larger representation than the Sinn Feiners. What is the result? The Sinn Feiners obtained 47 seats, whereas on the proper proportional method they only ought to have obtained 37; and the Unionists and Nationalists only obtained 29, whereas on the proportionate principle they ought to have obtained 39. I. think one may fairly put to your Lordships how important that difference is, and how important at a time like this it must be that the representation in Ireland should at any rate in some measure be proportional to the number of votes cast by the different parties. Such are the [...] in the two illustrative examples that I have given respecting the last General Election.

I now turn to the lessons which may be derived from elections which have been taken under the principle of proportional representation, and first of all I will deal with the case of Sligo. Sligo is the one municipality in Ireland to which the principle of proportional representation has been applied. It has been applied under a private Bill introduced by the then representative of Sligo in the other House, Mr. Scanlon, and in consequence there has been an election in Sligo for municipal purposes on the principle of proportional representation. In 1898, as your Lordships know, the franchise was broadened in Ireland, and the result of broadening the franchise for municipal purposes without the introduction of a better electoral method was in substance to disfranchise all the leading ratepayers in Sligo. Not only were all the leading ratepayers disfranchised, but the municipal affairs of Sligo fell into a hopeless state of confusion.

What have been the results of the application to Sligo under these conditions of the principle of proportional representation? I think they are very striking. The Ratepayers Association, which is what I may call the Moderate party, who had obtained no representations before, secured eight seats, and eight seats were directly in proportion to their voting powers. Sinn Fein obtained seven seats, again in direct proportion to their voting powers. Labour obtained five seats, also directly in proportion to their voting power; and the Independents obtained four seats. Therefore of the twenty-four seats you got a fair and equitable representation of all the parties who are really interested in municipal government in Sligo. We know that the effect of that has been so striking that a Bill is coming to your Lordships' House, about which I will say nothing at present, in order that all municipal elections in Ireland, I think, shall be conducted on the proportional representation principle. And that is absolutely right. But what strikes one immediately is this. If that is right, why should not municipalities in this country at least have the option of a fair representation of all the interests involved in government for municipal and local purposes? If you really want the representative principle applied I find it extremely difficult to see any answer to that question. Perhaps we shall hear one presently, but I have not heard it up till the present time.

A more remarkable instance of the practicability and effectiveness of proportional representation is to be found in the Scottish Education Act. Your Lordships no doubt are aware that in that measure they had special districts arranged for educational purposes, and the elections have been conducted on the principle of proportional representation, so that in every part of Scotland for educational purposes, from Galloway to the Shetlands, the proportional representation system has been tried, and, as I hope to point out to your Lordships quite shortly, has been found to be an absolute success. Not only has it been tried throughout Scotland, but it has been tried in respect of numbers which make the example one of great weight. For instance, in Glasgow there were 124,000 odd votes cast. These votes were all counted on one day without any difficulty and without a hitch. There have been many comments upon this in the Scottish papers which have pointed out that throughout the entire election on the basis of proportional representation there has been no hitch whatever so far as the counting of votes is concerned. I think that is of great importance for this reason. When we were discussing the principle of proportional representation in your Lordships' House a White Paper was flaunted, and it was said that the conditions are so difficult, as contained in the White Paper, that the counting can never he carried out effectively and accurately. The noble Lord will recollect that this White Paper was quoted several times. The result in Scotland, however, has been that all the suggested difficulties—difficulties are always suggested by way of criticism when some new principle is introduced—came to nothing, and there is not a single instance throughout the whole of Scotland, although this principle was being applied there for the first time and under new conditions, where there was any hitch or difficulty in regard to the counting of the votes.

Let me take the next point with respect to the electorate. The electors found no difficulty. It so happens that in the country districts, for some reason or other, they polled in larger numbers than in towns. For instance, in the County of Sutherland, where you might suppose difficulty would arise, 50 per cent. of the electorate polled, and no difficulty at all was found. In other places—in Perth, and I think in Paisley—about 40 per cent. polled without any difficulty. I give your Lordships these figures for this reason. In the election for the London County Council, which has to do with education in London, the proportion of votes polled is only 15.4 per cent., so it really is impossible to say, after that, that you in any way discourage the interest of the electorate by proportional representation. Scotland gives the answer to the contrary. Scotland gives the answer that, so far from there being a lack of interest produced by the proportional representation system, if we compare it with the interest under the old system, that interest is advanced. I have somewhere the actual numbers in Glasgow itself. There were 27 per cent. polled in Glasgow, which is nearly twice as large as the proportion in London. In Glasgow, where we had 124,000 votes, there were only 2 per cent. of spoilt papers. Remember this was an election under a new principle for the first time. When the cumulative principle was in operation in Scotland for education purposes, as it was at one time in England, there was a larger percentage of spoilt voting papers than under the proportional representation system, although in the case of the cumulative vote there had been experience, and in the case of proportional representation you were trying it for the first time. So far as the candidates are concerned there was no difficulty. It was proposed as regards proportional representation in this country that the candidate should have certain advantages respecting free passage and so on, and I think that if the Government introduced a Bill upon this principle, to give permission for proportional representation in the municipalities of Great Britain, similar facilities ought to be granted. But that is a matter of detail with which I need not trouble your Lordships at present.

May I say one or two words as regards the history of this matter in your Lordships' House, because I must say I think it is to the credit of this House that it has always been to the forefront in attempting to introduce what I know the great majority of your Lordships consider the best electoral method in order to get a true representative system. A Bill, similar to the one I am asking the Government to introduce, was introduced into this House in 1907; it was an optional Bill, the same as the present proposal. That Bill was referred to a Select Committee, of which Lord Belper was Chairman, and which reported in favour of the Bill. I do not stop to quote the Report, because I dare say many of your Lordships are cognisant of its terms.

The result was a Bill giving an option to the municipalities (I do not think it included the county councils) to have their municipal elections on the basis of proportional representation. That Bill was passed in 1908, and there were a large number of Bills subsequently introduced, all of which obtained the sanction of your Lordships' House, but they were either all blocked or stopped in another place. They were always blocked on the excuse of want of time or for one thing and another—such excuses as you always hear when people do not want principles to be adopted. But I find that on March 30, 1910, the House of Commons itself passed this Resolution— That inasmuch as the present system of electing representatives, whether to Parliament or municipal bodies, results in grave anomalies and injustices, it is expedient to test the system of proportional election, and, for that purpose, to empower municipal boroughs to apply that system in the election of their councils. Therefore you have the principle adopted in this House, you have the Bill adopted in this House, and you have the House of Commons, who have not been willing to set right what they call the "grave anomalies and injustices" which now exist, passing the Resolution that, it is expedient, at any rate for purposes of experiment, to empower the municipal boroughs to apply that system in the election of their councils. If that is so, why should there be further delay? Why should the affairs of municipal councils be less well managed than I believe they would be if you had representation on the proper basis? In March, 1914, a. Bill empowering municipalities to elect their councils on the principle of proportional representation was again adopted in this House.

With that history, are not those who believe in a proper electoral method justified in asking the question which I have put down on the Paper? If the Government say that there would be greater difficulty in the case of county councils (I do not believe there would be myself) than is involved in the application of the principle to municipal elections, let them draw that distinction. I do not think myself it is true, owing to what was the effect of the election in Scotland, but if they think that for any reason proportional representation is less applicable to the counties than it is to the municipalities that would be only an objection on comparatively minor points in my view to the Resolution that I am proposing. What I want to know, at least, is this—why should not municipalities who desire it be allowed to adopt a principle sanctioned in this House, and which the House of Commons itself has said ought to be brought forward in order to put an end to grave anomalies?

I do not want to anticipate the answer that may be given, but I imagine it is in this form—"Oh, you cannot expect any Bill of this kind to be introduced in the House of Commons at the present time." Of course, that is the ordinary answer—the obstructive answer, if I may call it so without discourtesy—to any amendment or improvement of our law. But I suggest that it is no good for a private person to introduce a Bill in this House unless it has some prospect of advance in the other. We are not at present overburdened with business in this House, and what I want to ask the Government (it is putting my Question in a slightly different form) is this, that if such a Bill were introduced into this House—a Bill carefully drafted, practically the same as previous Bills, but with alterations up-to-date—and if this House accepted it, would the Government give facilities for its passing in the House of Commons? That would really be the same, I admit, as the Government themselves introducing a Bill of that kind.

Perhaps I might remind the noble Viscount (Lord Peel) of this, that a time comes by and by when our leisure is generally interfered with somewhat summarily towards the end of the session at the same time that the House of Commons has transacted a good deal of its more important business. Could not the noble Viscount hold out a hope on behalf of the Government that a Bill introduced into this House in good time, and sent down in good time, could at any rate be considered at some later period of the session? I do not want to go into the question of general principle; I am dealing with the open door so far as this House is concerned, but I hope that His Majesty's Government will at any rate give the opportunity to the municipalities, if they have any difficulty about county councils, to have their affairs administered in what they consider the best way, if they like to exercise their option and on true representative principles.


My Lords, I desire to support the request made by my noble friend to the Government to give some facilities for our making at least some real progress with this question. I do so not in any dogmatic spirit, but in the spirit of an inquirer. I have never been one of those who felt absolutely convinced that the system of proportional representation was suited for this country, but I have thought, and venture more and more to think, that there is a very strong prima facie case for trying it, and that the method of trying it by municipalities is probably the best and easiest way.

Your Lordships will remember that when the Royal Commission which sat some years ago reported, it reported specially in favour of trying it for municipalities. It said—and I am sure we all feel—that politics are really an experimental science. Every year teaches us how many political devices turn out to work differently from what we expected, and the only way in which we can be satisfied that any plan will work well is by giving it a fair chance. The chance in a municipality is the simplest and easiest chance. The system which has been outlined by my noble and learned friend has the great merit that it gives a reasonable chance to the principle, and that it does not impose the principle absolutely upon a municipality; it only gives the municipality a chance of trying it. A more moderate and reasonable demand could hardly be put forward; and as the House has always given an assent to the principle, I hope that the Government may see their way to accede to my noble friend's request.

Let me add that the difficulty which exists in most people's minds with regard to this system of proportional representation is its supposed difficulty; it is commonly believed that it would be a puzzle and that the ordinary elector would be unable to master it. There have been instances—some of them have been cited by my noble and learned friend—in which it has been shown that the intellect of the average elector is quite competent to deal with one of the better and simpler systems of pro portional representation. Unfortunately I did not enter the House at the beginning of my noble and learned friend's speech, and I am not sure, therefore, whether he referred to the very remarkable and interesting experiment which was tried within the last twelve months in New Zealand.


No, I did not.


I think your Lordships would be interested in examining that case. It was there tried in one of the larger municipalities, I think the City of Wellington, and it turned out to be extremely successful. The cases of papers that were wrongly marked were extremely few, and there was a general satisfaction felt that every one had had a chance, and that the result of the municipal election was such as to convince the people of New Zealand that the plan would work and that it was the fairest plan that had yet been adopted.

I could multiply cases. I could cite the fact that the most intelligent democracy in the world—a democracy which has been exceptionally successful; it is not going too far to say the only successful democracy—has just adopted the principle of proportional representation. I refer to Switzerland. If there is any country which is cautious and wise in its political experiments it is Switzerland; and although the elections for the National Assembly have not yet been held under that system the fact that after having been before the Swiss people for a great many years it was adopted by a popular vote and is now going to be tried, is certainly a strong prime facie argument in favour of our trying a similar experiment as my noble and learned friend suggests. We have the double ground that the experiment has a great deal to be said for it on general grounds, and that it is particularly desirable to ascertain whether it can be worked in a manner consonant with our traditions, whether it can be worked so as not to perplex the elector but to give him a real opportunity of expressing his wishes and his preference. Having regard to these two grounds, I earnestly trust that His Majesty's Government may see fit to give a favourable answer to the request preferred by my noble and learned friend.


My Lords, the very interesting discussion that we have had this afternoon reminds me of some debates on this subject last year during the passage through this House of the Representation of the People Act. My noble and learned friend Lord Parmoor referred to what might have happened if the last General Election had been conducted under a system of proportional representation, but his Question on the Paper is confined solely to municipal and county council elections. I submit that rather different considerations apply, perhaps, to elections for the central Parliament than apply in the case of smaller local elections; therefore I dare say he will allow me to confine my reply more particularly to his Question and the application of this principle to the smaller and local elections.

I must say, as my noble and learned friend well knows, that the principle of proportional representation has been to some extent accepted by the Government—anyhow, by the late Government, when it was applied to University elections in this country; although I think it was generally agreed by those who supported and by those who opposed that these were the worst constituencies to which the principle could have been applied, because they were so small.


You will recollect that Dublin University, having proportional representation, elected the Independent candidate.


Yes. I think the results of some of the elections that have been cited by my noble and learned friend are remarkable. I have not the figures that he gave to the House as to the proportion of spoiled votes at the Glasgow election, but I think they are remarkable as showing, on the first occasion on which the system was tried, that it apparently worked well. I am talking now of the pure machinery of the thing, and not so much as regards the results. My noble and learned friend also referred to Sligo, and as he gave the figures I need not repeat them. There, again, I think the result was satisfactory in the sense that the Municipal Reformers—that is to say, the people who were for what we should call sane municipal government—obtained such a good representation on the Sligo Council. Lord Parmoor also mentioned the Irish Local Government Bill which is now passing through the other House. In regard to that, as the noble and learned Lord knows, the principle of proportional representation is not only for municipal elections but for all elections—administrative, county, rural districts, boroughs, and urban districts. He also knows that there are particular conditions in Ireland which may render it. desirable to apply the system of proportional representation to local elections; but he will quite understand that, if they are supporting a Bill which introduces proportional representation for all the local elections in Ireland, the Government can hardly be said to be hostile to the principle.


Hear, hear.


The other ease mentioned by my noble and learned friend was the Education Act for Scotland of 1918. There, again, the principle has been applied in the counties. I think it is possible to draw some little distinction between such a subject as education and the more minute or detailed subjects—shall I call them?—of local administration, where it is possibly better to have the precise and exact knowledge of the individual who represents the particular unit rather than the more extended knowledge of the man who is only one of five representing the larger unit. But as far as one can gather, at any rate from reports in the newspapers, the results of this system under that Act seem to have been on the whole very successful. Turning to England, the noble and learned Lord referred to the fact that a Bill in 1908 was passed through this House. I believe it was introduced by the late Lord Courtney of Penwith.


Hear, hear.


In that case I think the optional system was introduced. He was right in saying that it applied only to municipalities and not to county councils or smaller bodies. My noble and learned friend spoke with favour of this optional system being applied, although I understand there has been a good deal of difference of opinion among the supporters of proportional representation as to whether the system should be optional—that is to say, whether municipalities should be allowed to choose, or whether the system should be imposed on them by Act of Parliament. I understand that Lord Parmoor takes the side of those who wish to leave it optional, and that position was also supported by my noble friend Lord Bryce.

As regards the subsequent history of this question, a deputation was received by the President of the Local Government Board brought by the Trades Union Congress. They came, I believe, on various other matters, but they did strongly urge upon the President of the Local Government Board that proportional representation should be adopted for local elections. The answer that was given was what my noble friend would probably call an "obstructive" answer. It was that there was so much business before the Local Government Board this session that it was quite impossible for the President of that Department to deal with it, although he had voted for such a Bill on, I think, several occasions. He said, however, that the subject would no doubt be discussed with the local authorities through the new Advisory Councils which are to be set up under the Ministry of Health Bill and that perhaps some conclusion might be arrived at, although he was unable to do anything during the present session.

I do not think my noble friend referred to what had been done by or the discussions that had taken place at two bodies in this country—one the Parliamentary Committee of the County Councils Association, and the other the meeting of the Municipal Corporations Association. It will be very interesting to know what the result of their deliberations is. As regards the Association of Municipal Corporations I understand that they referred the matter to their executive committee with directions to bring up some definite proposal upon the subject. Resolutions have been passed recently by the Town Councils of Leeds and York in favour of the system of proportional representation for municipal elections. It is quite clear, therefore, as regards proportional representation at local elections, that there has been a good deal of movement in its favour quite recently, and, anyhow, during the last year. The Government have accepted the principle in more than one Bill which has been recently introduced, and are watching with great interest the result of the resolutions arrived at by these two great bodies representing local authorities, which are discussing the question at the present time in England.

I was going to suggest to my noble friends, as there is great congestion of business in another place—if they chose to do so it is as well to have these things set out very clearly—that they should introduce a Bill that would deal with all the rather vexed questions which are some of the difficulties included under the general head of proportional representation. For instance, there are the questions of the size of the constituencies and the mode of constituting them, and also that very important matter of the method of filling casual vacancies. My noble friend did not make any suggestion on the last-mentioned point. Perhaps he did not wish to do so in the course of his speech. He will recollect that that is one of the difficulties always felt by the supporters of proportional representation as regards Parliamentary Elections. I think it applies with less force to local elections, because after all, at any rate in this country, the issues are less keen as a rule between different parts of a town in local elections. Therefore, the local authorities or the different parties might be content with some system of co-option. I only want to point out that the difficulty does remain. It has not been settled, and I think it might be of some advantage if those who, like my noble friend, strongly support this principle were to embody in a Bill precisely the way of meeting the difficulty that he does suggest.

I interrupted the noble Lord once to know whether he was applying the system, as he does in his Question, equally to the counties and to boroughs. I think there is some distinction. After all, where people are collected together in a town the actual difference between one ward and another is very often not so great that a man might not be taken to represent the town generally, and then the actual local knowledge is not so important as it is, I think, in the country, where local administration may really turn very strongly upon the local knowledge possessed by the individual who represents a particular unit. Of course, if the particular individual only represents generally a much larger unit it is clear that he cannot have the same local knowledge of an area as he would if he represented a smaller unit.

Whether there is great enthusiasm in the counties or in the towns for elections of this kind I think we have not much evidence, but we shall have some further knowledge of the subject when we have received the views and the resolutions passed by the local municipal authorities. The specific Question that was asked me by my noble friend was this—If a Bill of this kind is introduced into this House and passed, will the Government undertake to give time for it in another place? I have no authority to make any such promise, and I imagine that, owing to the great mass of business that there is in another place at the present time, it would be difficult for the Government to give it; but I shall be very glad to represent the point to the President of the Local Government Board and say that it represents the wish of some noble Lords, and find out whether or not he is in a position to give such an undertaking. I think my noble friend will understand that that is all I can do in the circumstances.


My Lords, I wish to thank the noble Viscount for the answer he has given, and to say that I think steps may be taken to introduce a Bill which will enable the President of the Local Government Board to consider it.

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