Orders of the Day — Local Elections (Proportional Representation) Bill.

– in the House of Commons on 25th February 1938.

Alert me about debates like this

Order for Second Reading read.

11.8 a.m.

Photo of Lieut-Colonel Sir William Wayland Lieut-Colonel Sir William Wayland , Canterbury

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

As I find that there is a certain amount of misrepresentation in regard to this Bill, may I say at once that it does not deal with parliamentary elections, but merely with local elections. It does not touch parliamentary representation but deals only with county boroughs, metropolitan boroughs and the London County Council. There have been introduced in this House in recent years two Proportional Representation Bills dealing with local councils, one by the hon. Member for North Bristol (Mr. Bernays) and the other by the hon. Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris). This Bill proceeds really on the same lines. There are 83 county boroughs in England and three in Wales, and there are four districts equivalent to county boroughs in Scotland, namely, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen. In seven important Acts of Parliament this House has approved of the methods of proportional representation. They are the South Africa Act, 1909—election of Senate; the Representation of the People Act, 1918—election of Members of Parliament representing Universities; the Education (Scotland) Act, 1919—election of county education authorities; the Local Government (Ireland) Act, 1919—election of all local authorities in Ireland; the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act, 1919—election of members of the National Assembly of the Church of England; the Government of Ireland Act, 1920—election of the Parliaments of Northern and Southern Ireland; and the Government of India Act, 1935—election of Federal Legislative Assembly.

The purpose of all these Acts, as well as the present one, is to provide a fair representation for minorities. At the present time, in many boroughs in England, and in councils in London, and in the London County Council elections, a large number of votes are sterilised, and, unfortunately, that appears to be becoming a permanent feature, and, therefore, it naturally leads to less interest being taken in local elections. I think that that is one of the reasons why to-day, especially in London, there is such a small percentage of electors going to the poll in these municipal elections. I will give a few examples. In the London borough elections, take Lambeth, for instance. At the last Election in the Oval Ward, Labour had 10,681 votes and secured six seats, and the Municipal Reform party 7,608 votes, and obtained no seats. At Islington, in the Mildmay Ward, on the other hand the Municipal Reform party polled 12,401 votes and obtained six seats, and Labour 9,478 votes and obtained no seats. In either ward, the Bill would secure two seats for the minority. In no fewer than seven London boroughs, one party has a complete monopoly of the representation. In Westminster, the Municipal Reform party obtained 44,037 votes and secured the whole of the 60 seats. Labour polled 21,101, or nearly half, and did not obtain a single seat. In Bermondsey, Labour polled 62,662 votes and obtained 54 seats, and the Municipal Reform party polled 20,091 votes and did not obtain a single seat. In Greenwich, at the last Election Labour polled 32,926 votes and obtained 18 seats, and the Municipal Reform party 33,636 votes, or 710 more, and obtained only nine seats.

The London County Council election in March, 1937, resulted in an artificial cleavage of London with solid Labour and solid anti-Labour. East of a line drawn from Highgate to Sydenham, Labour secured 54 of the 64 seats. Some 25 contiguous constituencies, electing 50 members of the council, were won exclusively by the Labour party. The figures were: Labour, 424,548 votes, 50 seats; Municipal Reform party, 215,920 votes, no seats. On the other hand, in the West of London, you have the Municipal Reform party controlling certain boroughs entirely, with no Labour representation at all. In the counties the same thing is happening. In the large cities Labour is entirely in control of some of them, or nearly so, and in others you have what is termed the Conservative party in entire control, or nearly so. That does not represent a fair state of things. Take the 1937 Election, again, in London there are Bethnal Green with 30 out of 36 seats; Bermondsey, 54 out of 54; Chelsea, 36 out of 36; Poplar, 42 out of 42; Southwark, 60 out of 60; Stepney, 60 out of 60; and Westminster, 60 out of 60. In Belgium all the local elections have, since 1895, been fought on the principle of proportional representation, and for the last 20 years the same can be said of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The most recent Capital to adopt the principle of proportional representation is New York, with happy results.

Unfortunately, municipal elections decided on a majority vote tend to become more and more political. I can never understand—I was a member of a borough council for 14 years—why politics should enter into municipal affairs. What chance has an independent candidate in these circumstances? Practically none. He must belong to one party or the other. If he decides to stand alone, he is almost invariably at the bottom of the poll. Why should that be so? There are many very good citizens who would like to serve their borough, but who do not feel that they can sail under the flag of one party or the other. A doctor of my acquaintance in the borough where I was a councillor retired from practice, and he said he would like to do some work to fill up his time. I said, "Why do you not stand for the council?" "No," he replied, "I cannot do that, because I do not belong to any party. I will not stand either under the auspices of the Municipal Reformers or of the Labour party. Therefore, I shall not seek to gair, a seat." That is one example, and there must be hundreds of others. This disability also applies in regard to the office of mayor. Unfortunately, in many boroughs the majority elect a mayor from their own party. I do not think that is fair. Under proportional representation there would be a better chance of the mayor being selected on a fairer basis from one of the parties in the council or from outside. He would not always be a strict party man.

I realise that there are objections to proportional representation, and I will deal briefly with them. One objection is that there would be too many parties. I do not see that that is a fatal objection. The duties of borough councillors are mainly administrative. They cannot do anything which upsets the country. Their duties are very sharply defined. There are a few councils where party politics do not enter, but that refers to the smaller councils and not to the large borough councils, the county borough councils, and the county councils. I could understand the objection to there being too many parties if the Bill dealt with Parliamentary elections. I know that there is a very great objection to proportional representation being used for Parliamentary elections, but that cannot be said of municipal elections.

Another objection is that the voter would be confused. I do not think that that would be so. When the Government of India Bill was introduced by the present Home Secretary, it contained a provision for proportional representation in the Indian elections. The First Schedule, paragraph 19, provides that: Subject to the provisions of the next succeeding paragraph, persons to fill the seats in the Federal Assembly allotted to a Governor's Province as general seats, Sikh seats or Muhammadan seats shall be chosen by electorates consisting of such of the members of the Legislative Assembly of the Province as hold therein general seats, Sikh seats or Muhammadan seats, respectively, voting in the case of a general election in accordance with the principle of proportional representation by means of the single transferable vote. As far as the ordinary elector in this country is concerned there surely cannot be any doubt that he can more than compare in intelligence with the mass of the voters in India.

What would the elector have to do under proportional representation? The procedure is simplicity itself. The elector would have to register his choice. Each elector has a single transferable vote, and he expresses his choice by marking the ballot paper, 1, 2, 3, and so on, against the names of the candidates he prefers. Each ballot paper counts for one vote. His first choice may be Mr. Smith, so he puts the figure 1 against the name of Mr. Smith. If his second preference is Mr. Jones, he put the figure 2 against Mr. Jones's name, and so on, according to his preference for different candidates. He need give only one vote, but he can, if he wishes, go through the list of candidates, and up to the number of six in the order of preference, he can exercise his choice, just as one usually does when electing a committee from a number of candidates.

Another objection that I have heard is that under proportional representation the constituencies would be too large. Again, that argument would apply to Parliamentary elections but not to local elections. It could not be said that a constituency of a London borough would be too large or a constituency in Leeds, Bradford, Liverpool or any other centre would be too large. It would simply mean that there would be a ward in which the method of election would be carried out by means of the single transferable vote on the proportional representation system. The Royal Commission on Electoral Systems which reported 30 years ago said: A case has not been made out for the immediate adoption of the transferable vote for the elections to the House of Commons but proceeded to declare that many of the most important objections to its use for political purposes are not valid against proposals to employ it where the functions of the body to be chosen are primarily administrative, as they are in this Bill.

May I give a résumé of the Bill? It follows in its general lines the Local Elections (Proportional Representation) Bill which was passed by the House of Lords in 1919,1920 and 1921. The latter Bill incorporated many Amendments made by the Ministry of Health with a view to adapting it to existing legislation. The first Clause provides that in the local authorities to which the Act applies the council will be elected on the principle of proportional representation. It prescribes that the method of proportional representation to be used shall be, as in all other enactments of proportional representation carried by this Parliament, by means of the single transferable vote. The definition of the expression "transferable vote" is contained in the definitions Clause—Clause 2. This definition follows that given in the Representation of the People Act, 1918, in connection with the adoption of proportional representation for university Members.

Clause 2 provides for triennial election of the whole of the council. These conditions already apply in the case of metropolitan borough councils and the London County Council, and the Clause affects only county boroughs in which under present conditions one-third of the council is elected each year. This means that there will be less expense to county boroughs and that there will be less disturbance of business. Clause 3 provides for the redistribution of areas, where necessary, in constituencies returning not less than three members or more than six, In county boroughs and with very few exceptions in metropolitan boroughs the wards already return three or more members, and the question of redistribution will not necessarily arise. There is no hard-and-fast rule as to redistribution. Certain existing wards in the London boroughs returning two members or nine members may be exceptionally retained. Clause 8 provides that a local inquiry is to be held under the conditions prescribed in the Local Government Act, 1933, Section 290. Clause 4 provides for the postponement of the filling of a casual vacancy which occurs within six months of the election of a council. This plan, I think, is adopted in many boroughs at the present time.

Clauses 5 and 6 deal with the election of aldermen. They provide that aldermen shall be elected by the council on the lines of proportional representation. At the present time there is a tendency on the part of all parties to try to get as many aldermen as they can elected so as to increase their own majority. In some county boroughs and in one or two places in London the give-and-take principle is adopted, but they are few and far between. Clause 9 extends the application of the Bill to the 28 metropolitan boroughs, to 83 county boroughs and to the London County Council, which is more of the nature of the council of a county borough on a large scale than the council of a county. County boroughs in England and Wales are for the most part the larger boroughs which are also parliamentary boroughs, but some have a smaller population than many urban districts and many boroughs which are not county boroughs. County boroughs have been selected as they offer a convenient line of demarcation, comprising all the chief centres of population. Clause 10 applies the Act to Scotland, to the great cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee. Let me conclude by quoting John Stuart Mill, who recommended proportional representation on the ground that great democracies must be specially careful that minorities get their proper representation.

11.30 a.m.

Photo of Mr Cecil Wilson Mr Cecil Wilson , Sheffield, Attercliffe

I beg to second the Motion.

In the first place, I should like to point out that the Labour party Conference in 1918, among a number of resolutions, included one on the question of municipal elections in which they said that after the first election after the War all the members of each council should vacate their seats and that the new council should be elected on the principle of proportional representation. In the same year the Trades Union Congress adopted a similar resolution. The Bill of 1923 was the first Bill to get a Second Reading debate, but three other Bills which had been introduced during the interval never even got a Second Reading. The 1923 Bill was rejected by the House by 169 votes to 157, but I think if there had been any foresight as to what was to happen afterwards the Bill would not have been rejected. There had been many changes since which were not even contemplated then. The present method of local elections precludes in many cases anything in the nature of a real representation of the electors, and creates bodies of permanent malcontents. The Bill makes provision for the representation of substantial minorities and the election of men and women who have no Party attachments. It provides for triennial elections, the rearrangement of areas and the election of aldermen on the same principle as the election of members to the council.

We have to ask whether this method will remedy what many people feel to be wrong. Triennial elections are no new suggestion. If one goes back to the time when municipalities began to elect councils it might have been desirable in those days to have annual elections, but the day for annual elections has, I think, gone by. There is no proposal in these days for annual elections. We must realise what happens in annual elections. For 10 days or a fortnight you have those who are defending their seats or who are trying to secure seats asking officials for a large amount of information for themselves, and engaged very much more in trying to win the election than in carrying out the duties for which they were elected. After the election on 1st November they have to wait until 9th November when the committees of the council are elected, and it is a fortnight or a month before the committees can get to work. This is extremely disturbing and very undesirable from the point of view of the business of the council which has to be carried on continuously. It is interrupted for a very serious period, and if a new council has been elected it means that the interruption goes on for a much longer period. In addition, there is the expense of each annual election. If there were a triennial election, the expense would not be very much greater, if at all greater, than it is for the annual election.

Certain objections have always been made to the system of proportional representation. One of the strongest objections has been with reference to the calculation of the areas. That objection is entirely removed as far as this Bill is concerned. There is no reason why the present wards should not continue, and if there were some alterations in regard to the areas, they would be left, not to the local authorities, but to the Secretary of State. Another objection has had reference to the multiplicity of candidates. From time to time attention has been drawn to what has happened abroad in this matter; but I think that when the real facts are examined, that objection is found to be not nearly as strong as is generally supposed. A very large part of the work of the borough councils is done in Committee. In many instances, the chairman is of one party and the deputy-chairman is of another party, and in this matter there is not the difficulty that is sometimes said to exist. It should be remembered that the strength of local government must depend upon the confidence which the whole electorate feels that it can place in the council which has been elected, and that everything which contributes to securing that confidence is desirable. Another objection has been that under the system of proportional representation, there would be a number of freak candidates. There are enough freak candidates now. Personally, I would rather see three freak candidates every three years than one freak candidate every year. I think that by degrees they would be altogether eliminated. It is true that under proportional representation it would take longer to ascertain the results of the elections, but it is very much more desirable that we should have fair representation than that we should endeavour to get through elections with the utmost speed.

Hon. Members would do well to consider the objections to the present method of election. In the first place, substantial minorities are completely swamped. Secondly, the present method allows, as has happened a good deal in recent years, pacts to be made between two parties, not with the object of obtaining something which is desirable in the locality concerned, but with the object of keeping out a candidate holding different views. That is not the right way of carrying on elections of any kind. Elections ought to be fought for the purpose of securing the representation which is considered best and not simply for the purpose of keeping out a particular individual because of certain views which he holds. Another objection to the present method is that it permits those elected by small majorities to assume absolute power and encourages such majorities, whether they be from the Right or the Left, to go to extremes.

As far as the electorate is concerned, the present system certainly creates a sense of injustice on the part of those who are as completely subjected as they would be if they were disenfranchised. The result is that there is created a lack of interest on really vital matters because the electors who are not represented, say, "We never get a chance of being represented, so we will not bother." It is very much as though they said, "If we cannot play with a minority, we will not play at all." The present method causes good men and women to take no interest because they feel that the system is unfair and that unless they belong to a certain party there is no opportunity for them to take that part in municipal affairs which it is eminently desirable that they should take. If there were triennial elections under the system of proportional representation, there would, in all probability, be at least six candidates, and probably more, in a ward in which three seats had to be filled. There is no doubt that there would be far greater interest on the part of the electors because of a greater opportunity for them to have their views expressed.

As far as the candidates are concerned, instead of spending a larger part of their time in slanging one another, as under the present system, they would be bound to put forward their best case in order to secure the assent of the electors. The opportunity of voting for suitable men and women, whatever their party, would produce good results, even if those men and women were not elected, and the opportunity of getting a larger and fairer representation would create, on the part of the electors, a feeling that, although the particular candidates whom they favoured might not be elected, the whole matter was being dealt with on the lines of fair play, which is not the case at the present time.

On page 3 of the list of figures from which the hon. and gallant Member for Canterbury (Sir W. Wayland) has quoted, there appear the figures for Sheffield. As the figures for a single year might give a distorted view, I will take an average of the last three years in the elections which have taken place in Sheffield. There is a local electorate of 268,000. During those three years, the average secured by the majority was just under 17 per cent. of the electorate, and the average secured by the minority was 14 per cent. While those figures may not suggest very much, I think the following figures do: 36 per cent. of those who had an opportunity of voting did not vote, and 32 per cent. of the electorate had no opportunity of voting because there were no candidates for whom they could vote. If there were a new system of election by which there could be more than two candidates, or more than two parties, it would, in the first place, attract a considerable number of the people who wanted to secure representation and had no means of doing so, and secondly, it would arouse the interest, in a way which is not possible under the present system, of the 36 per cent. who had an opportunity of voting, but did not do so. During the last six years there have been opportunities for elections in five wards. If all those opportunities had been taken there would have been 30 elections. In those wards there have been only five elections. In other words, there are 25 cases in which no interest has been created, and there has been no opportunity of hearing the views of other candidates, because on either one side or the other, there has been a feeling that it is no use having a contest when the result is a foregone conclusion. It is most undesirable that in a city of more than 500,000 inhabitants, with an electorate of 268,000, the control of affairs, taking it year by year or taking each three years, should be in the hands of those who have been elected by less than 17 per cent. of the electorate.

I am not dealing with the actual composition of the council, but I do suggest that while I am referring to one city only, it is typical of what is happening in other cities throughout the country where the representation is in the hands of one party. Where the whole representation, or a very large part of it, is in the hands of one party, you get very near to the equivalent of the totalitarian state—which is most undesirable I think, to nearly all of us. We object to it, as far as national government is concerned, and the same objection applies to it in relation to municipal government. No one who believes in democracy can support such a condition of affairs.

The principle of democracy is that everyone should be represented equally as far as practicable, and it is practicable in most cases. But the existing method does not approach anywhere near that idea. I suggest that, however impracticable it may appear in certain quarters, it is far more desirable that we should endeavour to see that justice is secured for all, than that advantage should be secured by one political party, however good that party may be. I ask hon. Members to imagine an election in which 10,000 voters go to the poll. The present system makes it possible for the man who secures 3,334 votes to be elected and leaves the other 6,666 electors unrepresented. In other words, the man who is elected and who secures 3,334 votes is in an actual minority of 3,332. This Bill is designed to do two things—to remedy the inequality and injustice of the present system and to secure a more satisfactory system of representation than that which now exists, and I hope the House will agree to give it a Second Reading.

11.50 a.m.

Photo of Lieut-Colonel Sir Arnold Wilson Lieut-Colonel Sir Arnold Wilson , Hitchin

I beg to move, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question, to add the words "upon this day six months."

I do so in the unexpected absence, through indisposition, of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Lewis). The Bill has support in many different quarters, and I am sorry to find myself in the opposite camp to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Sir W. Wayland), my hon. Friend the Member for Moseley (Sir P. Hannon), and my hon. Friend the Senior Member for Oxford University (Mr. A. Herbert), whose bronzed face we are all glad to see again. We are divided to-day into the advocates of change and the advocates of no change. Those who believe, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill), once said in this House that "to change is to improve, and that to change often is to be perfect," and others, like myself, who take Lord Falkland's view that "when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change."

My strong leanings in this, as in few other matters, are towards "no change." The Mover and Seconder of the Motion hold that representation in local elections is intended to provide adequate opportunities for the expression of innumerable fragments of thought. Those of us who oppose the Bill hold that the first object of local elections is not, as in this House, to represent broad principles, but to provide trustworthy men and women for local administration. I do hot believe that the proposed system would, in fact, do this better than at present. Reference has been made to the Church Assembly. That body has steadily become less and less representative, and there is a widespread feeling among Church people and the clergy that the basis of representation has proved defective, partly because second and third preferences have a quite disproportionate effect when the votes come to be counted.

It was with some astonishment that I observed the name of my hon. Friend the Senior Member for Oxford University on the back of the Bill. I was advised to read to the House some of my hon. Friend's references in the book called "The Ayes Have It" to the actual working of proportional representation, as applied to his own constituency. I prefer to pay the House and my hon. Friend the compliment of assuming that all of us have read it, and that it is present to our minds. But my hon. Friend left the impression upon the mind of his friend Bobby that the system was complicated, that it was difficult to understand, and that it was largely fortuitous in its operation. Although it brought my hon. Friend to the House—a bull point—exceptions can seldom be used to prove the validity of general laws. It is generaly regarded as the thin end of the wedge. The idea is that the system should be tried out in county boroughs and, if successful there, applied in a wider sphere, and perhaps even in Parliament. I have not received a single representation from any local body whatever in its favour, neither from Scotland nor from England, neither from the Association of County Boroughs nor from the Association of Rural District Councils. The single printed circular which has reached me bears the name only of the printer, with no indication whatever as to its origin. Whether it is from the Proportional Representation Society or from my hon. Friends whose names are on the back of the Bill, I do not know. It is for all practical purposes an anonymous circular.

Photo of Sir Percy Harris Sir Percy Harris , Bethnal Green South West

Has the hon. Member not seen the names on the letter sent with the circular?

Photo of Lieut-Colonel Sir Arnold Wilson Lieut-Colonel Sir Arnold Wilson , Hitchin

I see that I must withdraw what I have been saying. It was sent to me, I gather, with a letter, which must have remained in the envelope, and all that I have seen is the meat and the substance of their representations. I see now that there is a whip attached, and it has some really admirable names, drawn from all three sides of the House. Reference has been made by the Mover and Seconder to the effects of proportional representation in other countries. I have looked up what was said when the question was last debated in this House, and I regard the experience of other countries on this question as being an argument which might better be employed against than for the Bill. It led Sweden to have 19 Governments in 20 years; it was adopted in Germany, where after some experience of proportional representation the people decided in disgust to wipe out all parties; it was tried in Italy, with the same results; it was in force in Spain, it has worked not well, as we all know, in some of the Low Countries; it led in Belgium to a certain instability. It is much too soon for us to draw any deductions as to what will happen as a result of proportional representtaion in India. In the universities it causes delay, and, while it sometimes brings men whom we should all miss in this House into it, there are equally often occasions when it has excluded good men.

A strong point was made by the Seconder that this sytem would increase the number of persons who vote in local elections. I do not believe it. I see no reason why there should be more voters under this more complicated system than under the present system. I do not believe the voters in these totalitarian cities are suffering under a sense of grievance and wrong. There is, as noted in this circular, quite a number of London boroughs where the minority has been practically unrepresented for the last four years. Has there been any serious attempt to reverse that decision? Was there any larger number of voters going to the polls than when it was notoriously a very close thing between the two? No, and yet, in those very same constituencies, 75 or 80 per cent. of them came to vote for a Member of Parliament who was not always of the same party as those whom they had sent a few months before to represent them in the municipalities.

The fact is that the party system is not as bad as it is represented to be. It gives a certain spice of mustard, and, as George Frederick Watts, the great sculptor and painter, said, the party system is a good thing in small doses. It should bear the same relation and the same proportion to the working of a parliamentary system as mustard does to beef. I believe that the party system, even in local government, has on balance worked fairly well. I am certain that, as in this House, so in the boroughs and municipalities to which this Bill would apply, members do not go determined to push the interests solely of their own party. They have always to remember the fact that there is a large minority whom they represent equally with the majority. Once a man is elected to any office, he represents everybody in his ward and not any particular group, and I think We are doing an injustice to municipal councillors in supposing that we should get any better men by the new system than we do at present. We politicians should not in our public speeches suggest that we wish to avoid politics in local government as if politics in this House and nation were an evil to be eradicated if possible.

On balance, I believe in politics. A few months ago a letter bearing a great name appeared in the "Times," and it began something like this: "Whenever a matter of public controversy is raised in your columns, I find a spiritual satisfaction in taking neither side." I have no particular respect for such persons, and those ladies and gentlemen referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury, who belong to no party, are generally in practice not very effective persons. If they have lived 40 or 50 years and have not yet made up their minds upon any particular issue or policy, they are not likely to inspire, to lead, or to do the immense amount of hard work which falls to a municipal councillor or in a Member of Parliament. In the words of the right, hon. Member for Limehouse (Mr. Attlee) in the Debate in this House, on a Motion introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for South Bradford (Mr. Holdsworth): Among English-speaking races the two-party system works better on the whole."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th December, 1933; col. 1747; Vol. 283.] Five years later we may say with some confidence that it is working well on the whole. We none of us wish to lose a single member of the third party which sits behind us. They are a necessary element, and they are, like the mustard on the beef, to be found in every local body of any importance throughout the country. There are very few cases where the 100 per cent. carry the same label. The label may be there, but beneath the label there is often a package of quite unexpected composition. The late Prime Minister, Mr. Ramsay MacDonald was quoted in the same debate as having described proportional representation as a method of election for securing the representation of fragments of political thought and desire, and for inviting those fragments to coalesce after, and not before elections."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th December, 1933, col. 1750; Vol. 283.]

Sir Patrick Harmon:

Was not that in reference to Parliamentary and not municipal elections?

Photo of Sir Herbert Holdsworth Sir Herbert Holdsworth , Bradford South

That was a quotation I made, and I went on to say something else.

Photo of Lieut-Colonel Sir Arnold Wilson Lieut-Colonel Sir Arnold Wilson , Hitchin

I apologise again for unintentionally misrepresenting those who are in support of this Bill by quoting against them things which they quoted from sources which they had not indicated with precision. Sir William Harcourt decribed this system as a system under which a man had to vote for somebody he did not prefer in order to further a cause he did not understand. That is not an unfair criticism, of the operation of the second and third preferences, who often come to the top and will often be found in practice to be representing causes which the average man does not understand. Some 20 to 25 per cent. of the electorate vote in the county borough elections. The figure is seldom higher than 30 or 40 per cent. and seldom below 20 per cent. It is the steady voting of men and women who only vote for people they know, and if we have, as we should have under this Bill, a larger number—five or six candidates was suggested—I doubt whether their personal acquaintanceship would be such an important factor as it is to-day in local elections.

The Bill would further reduce the personal connection between councillors and their wards, to which I attach real importance. The wards and districts would not, I agree, under this Bill be grossly enlarged as would be necessary if it were applied to Parliamentary elections. There is not much to be said against it on those grounds, but, on balance, I believe that the present system as we know it works well. It is more important to have a government than to have a microscopically accurate representation of opinion. All experience goes to prove that the more perfect an electoral system is, the more likely it is eventually to break down and carry with it our cherished institutions. Has Europe benefited by the scientific representation of minorities arranged with German thoroughness in Germany and Austria?

Photo of Sir A.P. Herbert Sir A.P. Herbert , Oxford University

Those countries have never had the single transferable vote. They have had devices like the alternative vote and the second ballot, but they have not had the particular device which is in this Bill.

Photo of Lieut-Colonel Sir Arnold Wilson Lieut-Colonel Sir Arnold Wilson , Hitchin

My hon. Friend may be better informed than I am, but I am sure there was no second ballot in any of the countries I have mentioned. There was the second ballot in France, but it was found to be so difficult to make it work that they had to introduce compulsory voting in order to make it work. My hon. Friend, in his writings on the subject in that most classical and entertaining periodical "Punch" as to this very system, as applied to his own election, led the world at large to think that, while it was possibly applicable to a learned and sophisticated body, none of whom were in a hurry to know the result, it would not be wise to apply it to the less sophisticated electorate in the urban areas.

John Stuart Mill was quoted as urging the close representation of minorities. Any system which we can devise will break down under the stress of violent emotions, economic injustices and ill-feeling. The system that we have is by common consent working well. There has never been a time when local government has been less open to the accusation of gross mismanagement and venality or inefficiency. It is steadily growing in public esteem and the type of men and women going into it are on balance becoming better and better informed every day. They are largely enlisted by political parties. It would be impossible to get any strong active interest taken in municipal affairs in many large cities but for the existence of political parties which stimulate interest and take great pains to select suitable persons to represent them. Those men and women of no political party who we are told wish to stand but do not like the hurly-burly of politics, who shrink from being asked to stand up for a particular view, and feel that they must always be sitting on the fence, are administrative mugwumps. I doubt whether any more of them will be a useful element in our public life.

I prefer on the whole the "reasonable man" so admirably described by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford University, who is to be found in larger numbers in this country and in every political party than in any other in the world. He is not tied too closely by his prejudices, and, although he waves his political flag occasionally, usually prefers to keep it in his pocket. I beg the House again to bear in mind that no single representation, so far as I know, has reached any of us from any organised body. I doubt whether any of us have received more than two or three letters from our constituents, though those who have written to us are very often men and women detached from politics who would like to cultivate a similar detachment in parliamentary and municipal elections and whose opinions deserve great respect. The present system is in my submission working well and there is no call to change it.

12.12 p.m.

Photo of Sir Annesley Somerville Sir Annesley Somerville , Windsor

I beg to second the Amendment.

My hon. and gallant Friend who moved the Amendment said that he was a substitute, but our Friday Debates have taken on a new attraction since he began to take part in them regularly. We always enjoy his versatility, his fertility in argument, and his delightful humour. He has seldom been more versatile or humorous than he has been this morning. It would be interesting to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Moseley (Sir P. Hannon) whether the great municipal authority in Birmingham has commissioned him to support this Measure.

Photo of Sir Patrick Hannon Sir Patrick Hannon , Birmingham Moseley

May I ask whether the Conservative Association of the Windsor Division have commissioned my hon. Friend to oppose the Bill?

Photo of Sir Annesley Somerville Sir Annesley Somerville , Windsor

I doubt whether that body is conscious of any such Bill being before the House, but, without presuming too far, I think I am safe in saying that they would support me in opposing it. I am surprised to see the name of the senior Burgess for Oxford University (Mr. A. Herbert) on the back of the Bill, for he is a famous individualist. The objection to proportional representation in any form is that it tends to mass thinking and the destruction of individualism. I am not surprised to see the name of my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) on the back of the Bill, because we all know that the party to which he belongs, small in numbers though it is, looks to proportional representation as a possible means of saving it from eternal disappearance. I do not blame them.

The Mover of the Second Reading spoke of his regret that politics had been introduced into municipal matters. I regret it very greatly, but when the whole power of the political machine belonging to one party is employed, as it has been employed in London in municipal affairs, then the other side is driven to the use of its machine. The point has been made that the existing system encourages apathy, introduces a state of stagnation. That is not borne out by the facts, because the proportion of voters in the last London County Council election rose. Of course it is true, if you look at the districts in London separately, that there seems to be a certain amount of injustice because all the representation is of one colour, but if you look at London as a whole the injustice disappears to a large extent. Even where politics do enter into municipal affairs the inherent sense of fairness and the common sense of the British people prevail and politics are forgotten.

I have been for some 25 years a member of a small council. For a time I was chairman, and I can say that we forgot politics altogether. Another instance is to be found in the Select Committees of this House. Their members are chosen from different parts of the House, and yet it is true to say that when they get to work upstairs party is forgotten. I remember one particular instance of a Select Committee which had an important matter before it. That Committee sat for five weeks and for four days a week. I was chairman of it. It was a case in which politics might very well have entered, but we forgot politics absolutely and every decision that we took was unanimous. The Committee had its decisions reviewed by a Select Committee of the House of Lords, which in one day agreed to every decision that we had taken.

I mention that as an instance of how politics do disappear from municipal matters. My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), whom the House hears with pleasure and profit except when he is carried away by violence of party bias, which occasionally happens, was chairman of one of the most Conservative county councils in the country, the Surrey County Council, which shows that in a case of that kind the chief interest of such a body is the good of the community. Another instance is Waterloo Bridge. In this House Waterloo Bridge was a matter of politics as well as of aesthetics, and the House refused by a great majority to be a party to the destruction of the bridge. But it seemed otherwise to the London County Council, and the bridge was pulled down. This House would not contribute anything to the pulling down, but the bridge having been pulled down it was obvious that there must be another bridge in its place as part of the general transport system of London, and so the House very sensibly sanctioned a grant for the building of a new bridge. That is an instance of common sense in politics and in municipal matters.

My chief objection to this Bill is that it produces mass results. I am an individualist because I believe in individualism. A good part of my life has been passed in trying to make young human creatures think, and think for themselves. This proposal seems to me to be the antithesis of that. Does any hon. Member doubt that if proportional representation was introduced in London the method that would be adopted would be this: A ticket would be given to all the electors of one colour, marked 1, 2, 3, 4,. 5, 6, or whatever was the number of candidates of that particular colour to be elected. Such a ticket would be given to all those electors, and they would be told: "You vote like this." The voters would know-nothing about the great majority of those candidates, except that they were recommended as being of a particular colour, and they would vote for those candidates without thinking.

It has been said that to-day, under the present system, the men who ought to be on these bodies and who would be useful members of them do not get elected. Would they have any more chance of getting on under this proposal? The right hon. Member for South Hackney (Mr. H. Morrison) would see to it that the Socialist electors of London voted according to the ticket, quite irrespective of those members of the community to whom reference has been made; they would get on because they were supporters of the Socialist party and not because they were the best people for the job. Under the present system, even if you are a Socialist you can vote for one of the opposite side if you think he is a better man for the post. A Socialist would be less likely to do so if he was voting what is called the ticket and he did not like to break away from his party. The proposal of the Bill does away with the sense of power of individual thinking. A most valuable part of one's experience as a Member of Parliament is contact with one's constituents. The same thing happens if one is a member of a municipal body. Members ought to have the power to get into personal contact, as far as possible, with their constituents. Under proportional representation that power is taken away to a large extent, because the constituencies are massed and it is impossible to get into touch with the general body of constituents.

Photo of Major Sir Derrick Gunston Major Sir Derrick Gunston , Thornbury

Surely, it is the case now that in local elections the wards return more than one member?

Photo of Sir Annesley Somerville Sir Annesley Somerville , Windsor

That is quite true, but the fact that there is a disadvantage in a particular state of things is not a reason for intensifying that disadvantage, and when there are double constituencies it is possible to divide a constituency as between the two members, and that is done. I, too, am a substitute in this Debate this morning, and have had to put forward these considerations as they occur to me, and I apologise for not having been able to prepare a speech carefully; but I submit to the House, and particularly to the members of my own party, that it is not wise to support a Measure which undoubtedly—I speak now as a party man—plays into the hands of the Opposition, and tends to destroy that individualism which is one of the mainsprings of our party. I hope that the House will see the force of the considerations which have been urged by the Mover of the Amendment and will reject this Measure.

12.26 p.m.

Photo of Sir Percy Harris Sir Percy Harris , Bethnal Green South West

I should like to remind the House that this is not a Bill to introduce proportional representation into national politics. My hon. Friend the Member for the Windsor Division (Mr. A. Somerville) argued a case not against this Bill, but against an alteration of our system of voting for Parliament, and I want to make it clear that this is a local elections Bill. It does not commit the House in any way to its application to Parliamentary elections. On the contrary, I happen to know that some of the backers of the Bill are as strongly against its application to national politics as the hon. Member for Windsor. The hon. Member for Hitchin (Sir A. Wilson) talked about this Bill being the thin end of the wedge. If the Bill works in operation it will be interesting experiment and we can learn from it. Perhaps it may be a failure, as the hon. Member has anticipated, and that will strengthen his case against this application of this system to the larger political sphere, but I do want to insist that the work of local government is very different—and this is a point which we cannot accentuate too much—from the work of Parliament. Our business here is to make laws and to deal with important national problems.

I have always recognised that there is a case against applying a system which, its opponents say, might lead to a Government not having a strong majority. The whole basis and foundation of our Parliamentary system is majority government. It is a different story in the case of local bodies. For 28 years I was an active member of a local authority. The bulk of the work of a local authority is done in committee: some Acts of Parliament automatically relegate duties to committees. In committee party comes up very little, but it is important, and that is the aim and purpose of the Bill, to get on those committees the best men and women available who will offer themselves for election. The work of a London borough is entirely administrative. It deals with such dull, dreary things—they would not appeal to my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin—as the lighting and cleansing of the streets, the management of public libraries, drainage, the sanitary inspection of houses. They are dull, dreary things, but they do interest a lot of public-spirited people.

Photo of Lieut-Colonel Sir Arnold Wilson Lieut-Colonel Sir Arnold Wilson , Hitchin

They are the very life-blood of my existence.

Photo of Sir Percy Harris Sir Percy Harris , Bethnal Green South West

I am glad to hear that, but I am afraid that if my hon. Friend, with his political opinions, went into the East End of London he would not, under our present electoral system, have the remotest chance of being able to apply his great gifts.

Photo of Sir Percy Harris Sir Percy Harris , Bethnal Green South West

I want to accentuate this aspect of the matter, because it is one of the reasons why this change is so advisable. These local authorities, through their committees, have great powers of appointment, and inevitably there are suspicions of favouritism and jobbery, though I always think they have been grossly exaggerated. When a council is composed entirely of members of one party and has no effective opposition, inevitably outside that council there will be suspicion that undue favouritism is shown to men and women of the political opinions of that party. The larger local authorities to which this Measure would apply have the important task of looking after education, and for that we want the very best men and women, irrespective of political labels, to look after the schools, to see that the appliances are right and to see that the most efficient staff is appointed—and very great power is vested in the local authorities—and to see that the Acts of Parliament entrusted to their care are impartially administered.

I suggest that the London boroughs are especially suitable for this experiment in proportional representation. They are already divided into wards which elect some six to nine representatives. The case of the hon. Member for Windsor in respect of individualism is met. It is common knowledge that it is often difficult to complete the party tickets. A local party can get five or six supporters who are keen to stand, but when they have to fill a party label of nine, ingenuity has to be exercised, and some men and women are inevitably put on the ticket who are not particularly qualified and, when they are elected, hardly trouble to vote. The common practice is that the electors plump for the whole ticket. They vote by ticket. I am a party man and, on the whole, I think the party system works. People who hold the same kind of feelings are more effective when they co-operate and work together and the change under the Bill would secure that the party system would be effective. On the one hand, it would secure the best men and women of political parties, and, on the other hand, no political party would be unreasonably excluded from representation if there were a reasonable amount of backing behind it.

In the City of Westminster, in which Parliament is situated, we have the remarkable spectacle of a city council composed entirely of men and women of one political label. There is no opposition; there is no criticism. The only people who can be elected to the City of Westminster are those who call themselves Conservatives. Anyone who is a Liberal or a Socialist has not the remotest chance of being elected to the City of Westminster. The same remark applies to Chelsea. I am sorry my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea (Sir S. Hoare) is not present. I believe that he is against dictators and against the totalitarian system of government. I have had many conversations with him, and he has said so in public upon the platform. Nevertheless, in Chelsea at the moment, you have a totalitarian state. There is not the slightest chance of anyone being elected to the Chelsea Council unless he calls himself a Conservative. There is no opposition, and only one side on the Council. On the other hand, in other boroughs in London, the reverse position exists. In Bermondsey, Bethnal Green, Poplar and Stepney there is no opposition. All the members of those councils are of one political label—Socialist. It is many years since anybody who was even an Independent has had the slightest chance of getting elected in places like Poplar except by camouflaging his political opinions and calling himself Labour.

In Bethnal Green, for two elections, nobody could secure election unless he called himself Liberal. Labour was swept out and there was a solid phalanx of Liberals dominating the council. That lasted for six years, but the inevitable swing of the pendulum took place and now not one Liberal or Conservative is left upon Bethnal Green Borough Council. There is only one party—Labour. There should be some guarantee of stability, some guarantee that there would be an opposition in all those councils, so that there could be effective criticism. If our democratic system is to work and our government by discussion and debate to be effective, there should be an organised official opposition.

I suggest that here is an unanswerable case for a change in our electoral system. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for South Bradford (Mr. Holdsworth) will speak on the subject of the working of our present system in the provinces. In the large provincial towns an election is held every year. Some people are very keen about annual elections, but that system is very expensive in these hard times of heavy rates. If we could introduce into the provinces a system of triennial elections, it would be an influence for economy and would, I believe, secure more interest and more active participation on the part of the electors in securing the right man. The figures contained in the memorandum sent to all Members are ample evidence that the criticism that applies to London boroughs applies more or less to provincial towns. Whole cities are represented by only one political party. Some are entirely Labour and others are entirely Municipal Reform or Progressive. Some of the mining towns are impossible for a non-Labour man who wishes to secure election.

Photo of Mr George Griffiths Mr George Griffiths , Hemsworth

It would be impossible for a Labour man to get elected in Bournemouth.

Photo of Sir Percy Harris Sir Percy Harris , Bethnal Green South West

I agree with the hon. Member. The principle embodied in the Bill has been in operation in many countries and has worked successfully. It has been in operation in the municipal elections in Belgium for 42 years, and works also in Sweden and Denmark. In Switzerland it has been in operation in many towns for between 20 and 30 years. This House passed a Bill in 1920 which applied the principle of proportional representation for the first time to 120 Irish towns, before the Free State was set up. A loving cup was presented to the Town Clerk of Belfast City Council as a memento of the introduction of proportional representation in that city.

Perhaps we can get the best example of the working of this system if we look at New York. It is common knowledge that that city was the centre of Tammany and corruption, and that many attempts had been made by which a minority could secure election and purify the government. The appointment of staff and the whole organisation of the government of New York was corrupt and unsatisfactory. Proportional representation was introduced for the first time in New York and, according to the "Herald Tribune," the new council which was elected was the most representative in living memory. The "New York Times" said that proportional representation had done its job and had cleaned up the city. There is a strong case for giving the Bill a Second Reading. I can say on behalf of the promoters that we shall be prepared to consider reasonable Amendments when the Bill goes to Committee. I am sorry that the Minister of Health is not in charge of the Bill, which is more a matter of local government, I submit, than one for the Home Office. I am especially sorry that the Home Office has the Bill and not the Ministry of Health, because the Parliamentary Secretary introduced a Bill in 1933 almost on the same lines as this one. He was lucky in the Ballot, and he chose this subject. I do not know whether that is the reason why he is not present. I believe that he is a man of great conviction and high principle, and if we go to a Division on the Bill I believe that he will support it in the Lobby. I hope that the Home Office will show impartiality, and will give the Bill its blessing.

12.43 p.m.

Photo of Mr Bartle Bull Mr Bartle Bull , Enfield

I wish to support the Amendment which was moved by the hon. Member for Hitchin (Sir A. Wilson). Merely because it does not affect Parliamentary elections I do not see why we should take action which will make local councils more ineffective. If we once had proportional representation firmly established for local councils, we should soon experience an agitation for the introduction of the system in Parliamentary elections also. The very fact that the sponsors of the Bill have taken the trouble many times to point out that the Bill does not affect Parliamentary elections shows that they have a certain amount of anxiety on this aspect of the question. The hon. Baronet said that he is opposed to proportional representation in national politics and that he does not wish to try it so far as election to this House is concerned.

Photo of Sir Percy Harris Sir Percy Harris , Bethnal Green South West

No, I did not say that. I said that the Bill did not commit the House in any way to the principle of a larger measure of proportional representation. As a matter of fact, I am in favour of it.

Photo of Mr Bartle Bull Mr Bartle Bull , Enfield

I hope the hon. Baronet will excuse me. I think he did say that all London boroughs were especially suitable for the experiment. I wonder whether he has had any representations from the London boroughs that they are anxious to be subjected to it. The hon. Baronet made an observation about New York and quoted the "Herald Tribune" as saying that proportional representation had benefited New York. I do not know whether he has visited that great city lately, but I can assure him that there is still a considerable amount to be done, as he would find if he spent a little time there.

Photo of Sir Percy Harris Sir Percy Harris , Bethnal Green South West

It has only just come into operation.

Photo of Mr Bartle Bull Mr Bartle Bull , Enfield

It will still take a little time. The system of proportional representation which was adopted in Germany after the War and which has already been mentioned this morning gave rise to a multiplication of parties and a weakening of the Government which brought democracy to some extent into contempt in Germany, and gave the dictator his chance.

Photo of Mr George Rickards Mr George Rickards , Skipton

Does my hon. Friend not know that in 1932, after the adoption of proportional representation in Germany, there were considerably fewer parties than before?

Photo of Mr Bartle Bull Mr Bartle Bull , Enfield

If that be so, it should have saved the situation, but, unfortunately, it did not. I think we should be taking great risks if we paid too much attention to theoretical considerations in regard to the question of representation, as against practical experience, and if we did not fully recognise the importance of a good and strong Government. The question of the contact between members of a council and their constituents, which was emphasised by my hon. Friend who seconded the Amendment, is a very important aspect of this matter. If a constituent knows exactly whom he has to blame, at least he knows who his enemy is, though it may be less fortunate for the representative. Another difficult question is the multiplication of minorities. If, for example, we had ten or a dozen Communists and ten or a dozen Fascists in this House, there would be no chance for any one else to speak at all.

From the technical point of view, I think that proportional representation would add considerably to the cost of elections, and we have also to remember the great length of time that would be taken up if a recount should be necessary. Moreover, it would make abuses more possible. Would not a candidate be able to say to people that he hoped they would be able to vote for him first, and would then give votes to other candidates as well? If we must have proportional representation at all, I suggest that the single transferable vote is the worst form of it. I do not agree with the point made by my hon. Friend who seconded the Amendment that it would be bad for the Conservative party in particular. I think it would be equally bad for hon. Gentlemen opposite if they should be in office. Remembering what happened in 1929–31, I think it is very much better that they should have a majority of their own, because then they would know that they were responsible for what they did.

Photo of Mr George Griffiths Mr George Griffiths , Hemsworth

What about 1939–41?

Photo of Mr Bartle Bull Mr Bartle Bull , Enfield

That is an additional reason why hon. Gentlemen opposite should be against the Bill, and I hope the House will reject it.

12.49 p.m.

Photo of Mr Walter Green Mr Walter Green , Deptford

I rise to support the Amendment. These Friday debates bring us into very curious company. They divide the House in an extraordinary way, though I sometimes feel that our Friday discussions show the House at its best In supporting the Amendment, I only wish that Parliamentary procedure enabled the interval before which the Bill could be reintroduced was longer than six months, but at any rate that is something towards putting off what I should regard as a very evil day if the Bill as introduced became law. I have been wondering, after reading the Bill and listening to the Debate, whether this proposal could not aptly be described as the last hope of discredited and disappointed municipal politicians. I cannot see, particularly from the Debate as it has proceeded so far, that it gives any promise that the efficiency of our municipal services would be increased in the slightest degree, or, even more important, that any greater interest would be taken in municipal affairs than is taken to-day. I think the whole House, quite apart from party, feels a real and sincere pride in the work of our municipal administrators, and I was amazed to hear such an experienced municipal administrator as the hon. Baronet the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) use in support of the Bill the argument that at least it would be an experiment, that at least it would prove whether—

Photo of Sir Percy Harris Sir Percy Harris , Bethnal Green South West

I was not putting that as an argument for the Bill, but was trying to make use of it to meet the point that it might be applied to national affairs. Some hon. Members were objecting to it because it was an experiment from the point of view of national affairs.

Photo of Mr Walter Green Mr Walter Green , Deptford

I rather took the hon. Baronet's point of view to be that this system might or might not turn out to be of real advantage to municipal administration in this country—that he was suggesting that it might be tried on the local authorities, and that if it did not kill them, it might perhaps be tried in the Parliamentary sphere. I suggest that our municipal government is far too big and important a thing to gamble with in this haphazard way. It is, in the main, well run, and personally I see very little reason for suggesting such an aggressive alteration as I believe would follow the passing of this Bill. I have been interested in the Bill, first, because I have been a member of a municipal borough council for 29 years. I have also been a political agent, and I have, as I presume many other Members of the House have, canvassed tens of thousands of electors. I am also interested in the Bill because the hon. Member for Canterbury (Sir W. Wayland) and myself graduated in the same municipal university. For many years we were members of the same municipal authority. He was the last distinguished mayor of a long line of Municipal Reform mayors of that borough, and I succeeded him as the first of what I believe will be a permanent line of Labour mayors of the borough. The point is that, while his party were in a position to appoint him mayor, while they controlled the affairs of this metropolitan borough, it did not seem to enter his mind that any change was necessary, and one does just labour under the suspicion that it was only when it appeared obvious that public opinion did not support the point of view represented there by the hon. Member that it was felt that there was a real and urgent need for change.

Photo of Lieut-Colonel Sir William Wayland Lieut-Colonel Sir William Wayland , Canterbury

I was elected on the borough council two years before the War, and during the whole period of the War I was mayor, so I had not much opportunity to do what the hon. Member suggests.

Photo of Mr Walter Green Mr Walter Green , Deptford

I feel convinced that the majority of the House will agree with me that it would be exceedingly wrong to judge the Measure purely from the party effects that might ensue from this policy. I am not at all sure how it would affect the party position—whether it would benefit Labour or whether it would benefit Conservatism. I believe that in large areas of this country it would benefit Labour, but, on the other hand, it might perhaps, in some areas in London, be detrimental to Labour's prospects. At any rate, I feel sure that that should not be the deciding factor governing our support or otherwise of the Bill. It introduces an entirely new principle into our electoral life. We have been given instances of how it operates, though we have not heard a great deal as to whether it has been successful in any other country. I believe our municipal administration and the way it operates is more successful than in, perhaps, any other country. Theoretically, a case can perhaps be made for this Bill, but I prefer a little experience to a great deal of theory, and, surely, experience has proved that our present method of electing local authorities has been, in the main, successful. I particularly noted that the Mover assured the House that he does not desire this to apply to national affairs. Why, if in theory the case is unanswerable for proportional representation in local elections, should it not be equally applicable to national affairs?

Photo of Lieut-Colonel Sir William Wayland Lieut-Colonel Sir William Wayland , Canterbury

There are two great objections to the application of proportional representation to Parliamentary elections. One is the loss of personal contact, and the second is the very large constituencies, which would make it impossible for a member to get round.

Photo of Mr Walter Green Mr Walter Green , Deptford

Yes, they are reasonable objections, but if the theory is that the only effective and justifiable system of election is that which will give all shades of opinion adequate representation on local authorities, surely it is equally right in national affairs. I can only conclude that if the hon. Member's party were in the position which the Labour party is in, he would be in favour of extending it to national affairs. My objection to the Bill is: first, that it makes difficult stable local government. That would be an objection to it for national elections also. The parties, in the main, at local elections do stand for a definite policy. That policy is made plain to the electors, and the party rests upon the assent or otherwise of the electors to that policy. If a party advocates a policy it endeavours, in the main, faithfully to carry it out.

If this system operated locally, it is surely obvious that there would be innumerable groups formed in every local authority. I wonder whether that would be to the advantage of good local government. We should have Members of groups elected on questions that have not the slightest relation to the policy the council has to carry out. I can quite imagine that we should have greenshirt groups of social credit representatives, blackshirt groups, Sabbatarian groups, Peace Pledge Union groups, Seventh Day Adventist groups, Sunday trading opponents' groups; and in each case the policy which made for their success would have no relation to the policy that the council would have to carry out. You would reduce your borough council to a debating society, where practical business administration would become very difficult. One hon. Member said, against the argument that freak candidates would find election to councils, that we have freak candidates already. That may be, but we all deplore their existence; and this Bill would put a premium on the possibility of such candidates. It may be that certain undesirable results have followed from our present method, but I suggest that these results are not respresentative of what happens in the main.

As regards the part of the Bill dealing with aldermen, I have no objection to it in principle; but I regard it as unnecessary to embody that in an Act of Parliament, because in the case of most decent councils the principle is observed already, that the aldermanic benches are filled with representatives of the parties in proportion to their strength on the council. In my own borough, that principle has been scrupulously observed, as far as the Labour party is concerned. We had a very bad example when the party to which the hon. Member who introduced the Bill belongs scooped the whole of the aldermanic seats for their own advantage; but, fortunately, the Labour party have risen above that, and have not been diverted from the path of rectitude.

Photo of Sir Frederick Messer Sir Frederick Messer , Tottenham South

They have done that in Middlesex, too.

Photo of Mr Walter Green Mr Walter Green , Deptford

I can understand that, knowing the political complexion of Middlesex. But in the main, borough councils have played the game. The London County Council, whether Municipal Reform or Labour have been in control, have scrupulously observed the allocation of aldermanic seats in the mathematical proportions of the parties on the council. My view is that that can be done without legislation, and certainly without forcing the very undesirable system of proportional representation on the local authorities. Further, it seems to me that the system would weaken the accountability of local parties to the electorate. I am not sure that it would not lead to the establishment of groups and cliques in a council; and it might mean the representation of very undesirable groups and interests; and, in many senses, make our municipal administration much less clean that it is to-day. I can see the bookmakers, the publicans and certain undesirable property owners securing election by this method.

There is another point, and perhaps a more practical one. The electors generally do not understand electoral methods. I shall be surprised if there is an hon. Member in this House who does not deplore the small percentage who vote in municipal elections. I am convinced that this Bill would make the proportion smaller still. Many hon. Members, like myself, have gone round canvassing, and, whether we like it or not—we do not desire to cast any aspersions on others; it is because of their lack of educational facilities—in many of our poorer areas we should have the dickens of a job to make people understand what this system means. Hon. Members here have been present at the counting of votes at election times, and many of them must have been amazed at the state of some of the papers. There can be only one possible explanation, and that is that the people have not understood even our present simple system of elections. If you introduced this business and had 18 or 20 candidates in a ward, one could realise what an easy proposition that would be, but as many of these people have had a very slender education and know very little about politics, it would be very difficult for them to sum up those 20 candidates and say, "This one, one; that one, two, and another one three." When you got the result you would have an equally difficult job to persuade them that there had not been jiggery-pokery to ensure the election of those declared elected.

I suggest that even if in our local authorities and other elections the system could be demonstrated as desirable, the time is not ripe for it. I happen to be connected with the Co-operative Society, and their elections are all conducted on the methods of proportional representation. I believe that at the last election which took place only about one per cent. of the members voted, and I am convinced that a very real explanation of the smallness of the vote was the fact that electors did not like the system and did not understand it. Also, in present elections the proportion of spoilt papers is relatively enormous—

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members not being present

The House was adjourned at Eight Minutes after One o'Clock, until Monday next, 28th February.