Orders of the Day — Electoral Reform

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 2nd February 1944.

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Photo of Colonel Sir Henry Evans Colonel Sir Henry Evans , Cardiff South

Yesterday and to-day we have heard the views of representatives of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. As the first Member for a Welsh constituency to have the good fortune to catch your eye, Sir, I welcome the opportunity of congratulating my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on the fair and impartial manner in which he has presented the Motion. In spite of what the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) has said, it is inconceivable that any Member would oppose such a Motion in the Lobby. Indeed, it is only a war of a magnitude hitherto unknown in history which could have prevented the Motion being presented years ago.

When the Motion has been accepted by the House, and the consequent machinery has been put into motion, it will be a further step towards ordered and fair Parliamentary representation. The first step, of course, has already been taken. The House has passed the Parliamentary Elections and Meetings Act which will correct the absurd position which exists to-day up and down the country in regard to the franchise. At the moment it is fantastic, I think, for this House to know that in the birthplace of the Mother of Parliaments, no person under 30 has ever voted at a General Election and no person under 26 years of age has voted at a by-election.

The report of the Committee on Electoral Machinery, commonly known as the Vivian Committee, disclosed conditions of inequality in the representative status of Members which no true and sincere supporter of a Parliamentary form of government could possibly defend. The Vivian Committee expounded the following principles; the sense of which, I gather from the speech of the Home Secretary has, for practical purposes, been incorporated in the terms of reference which are to be submitted to Mr. Speaker's Conference. The Vivian Committee used the following words:

  1. "1. Equal representative status of Members as a basis of representative government.
  2. 2. The necessity for the fixing of a quota for the determination of areas to which seats should be assigned in their equal content of persons to be represented."
To take first, the question of quotas, I gather that the figure of 54,000 or 55,000 electors per Member has been mentioned. I feel sure that hon. Members will share the view that this figure is about the limit of the load which a Member of Parliament can usually carry in times of peace and discharge his duties to his constituents with that full efficiency he would like. I gather, too, that if redistribution took place on those lines, it would only result in the membership of this House being increased by approximately 15 to 20 Members. In expressing that view, I do hope I carry with me the right hon. Baronet the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) and the hon. Members for North Southwark (Mr. Isaacs) and West Bermondsey (Dr. Salter) because in 1941 they only had an estimated electorate of under 18,000. At least, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Sir R. Blair) and the hon. Gentleman who represents Rom-ford (Mr. J. Parker) will agree as they both had an estimated electorate of between 210,000 and 220,000—an impossible task, even for their acknowledged abilities.

Of course, in Wales the position is a little different. We do not go in for the ultra big or the ultra small constituencies. As the House is aware we are not so extreme in the Principality. There are only four seats out of the 36, which are over 1,000 electors or so, in excess of what, undoubtedly, will be a normal constituency. Flintshire, for instance, has over 82,000 electors, Llanelly (Carmarthenshire) over 70,000; Neath in Glamorganshire over 65,000 and Llandaff and Barry over 82,000. The rest of the county and boroughs seats in the Principality are of a moderate and normal size, except Merionethshire, which only has under 30,000 electors. I was very interested yesterday in the speech of the hon. Gentleman the Member for East Stirling (Mr. Woodburn) because I assumed from what he said that he was speaking officially on behalf of the Labour Party, and he seemed to me to express some doubt as to whether it would be possible either to carry out partial or complete redistribution before a general election takes place. These doubts affirmed by the representatives of his Party who signed the Minority Report of the Vivian Committee. These representatives set down reservations which appeared to me to apply to any redistribution now or in the future. They objected to a redistribution now on the grounds which the remainder of the Committee did not consider convincing to either a full or a partial redistribution, notwithstanding the undoubted maldistribution disclosed in the report. Personally, I want to say I found myself in agreement with the majority of the Committee and I am surprised to find members of the Labour Party supporting a system which favours the rich, and sometimes the incompetent, candidate.

I hope Mr. Speaker's Conference will accept the recommendation of His Majesty's Government to set up a Boundary Commission of a permanent character with permanent functions because this would allow adjustment to be made automatically at given periods without the Government of the day having to come to the House from time to time and go through the machinery of Debate, conferences and legislation. Moreover, it will bring our legislation and practice into line, now that we have passed the Elections and Meetings Act. I hope that subject always to a measure of discretion the principle of coterminous boundaries, for Parliamentary and local government constituencies, will be adopted as I feel it would make for the better representation by the Member of Parliament. Take the city of Cardiff, for instance. It is hard to justify, I think at the moment, certain portions of adjoining county constituencies being included in the city's Parliamentary divisions. Whether this would benefit the sitting Conservative Members I am far from convinced, but from the view of community interest, and the more general interest of Cardiff itself, especially when it will, I hope, be the seat of the Welsh Office to be, there can be no doubt that a change of Parliamentary boundaries would be in the public interest.

The object, as I see it, is to make the political interest of areas as uniform and compact as possible. In general, too, I think it would be conceded that a county division, owing to the difficulties a "Knight of the Shire" has in covering wide distances, needs special consideration. We have listened to a lot of arguments to-day on the question of Proportional Representation, proposals largely put forward by members of the Liberal Parties and supported in one or two isolated instances by the British Common Wealth Party and a Member who spoke from the Front Bench of the Labour Party.

It is interesting to note that in the last General Election in Wales in 1935 Liberals of all parties, groups and pockets, including the Ernest Brown Liberal Nationals, polled over 196,000 votes in the Principality with the result that they returned 10 Members to this House. On the other hand, the Conservative Party polled 204,000 votes and returned only six Members. In other words, we polled 8,000 more votes than the Liberals and returned four less members. I only make this reference to observe that, in spite of that unfortunate experience, we are still opposed to Proportional Representation. We take the view that there is sufficient log-rolling as it is, without our 36 members being divided into still smaller groups and smaller pockets with the resultant bargaining and back-scratching which would have to take place whenever the Parliamentary representatives of Wales were anxious to present a united front in the interests of their people.

I have always taken the view that the success of our Parliamentary system has been in a large measure due to the party system—nothing in this world being perfect. From the experience of groups in the French Chambre des Deputies I shudder to think what might happen in this country, if we were faced with a similar situation. What this country requires for the next 25 years at least is a strong Government, with a strong majority behind it. Minority governments, dependent on the good will of a number of small parties or groups, would not get our people through the troubles which this country will have to face in the future and, in my view, Proportional Representation might very well bring that state of affairs about. Proportional Representation is another device to revive a system that is inefficient and antiquated. It faces none of the vital problems of political and social organisation, and its adoption would prolong an illusion that everything for the best is being done. I, personally, do not like Proportional Representation even in universities and I hope when universities come under review at the Conference that the aspect of their election will also be examined. I do venture to express the hope, however, that university representation will not be abolished in this House. From time to time, the universities do produce some very interesting and rare specimens, and now that the activities of universities are widening, I hope their representation in this House will long continue. Quite frankly, I firmly believe that the rarefied atmosphere which is cast on our Debates in this House and on the problems in our industries by the learned and hon. Gentlemen who hailed from Aberystwyth, Oxford and Cambridge and other distant parts is very beneficial to the body politic.

I want to say a word or two about expenses. I think that in a large measure we ourselves are to blame for the very high expenses of elections. I feel that candidates of all political parties, and particularly of my own, are involved in high expenditure at the time of election—not from the point of view of necessity—but from the point of view of custom. There are a lot of people one finds associated with oneself at election times, who are "on the make" and who look upon such times as a unique opportunity to "make a quid or two on the side"—as a right. They say, "We are not spending the same amount of money as our opponents in this particular ward. Why do we not"—we, mark you—"spend more?" They forget they are spending nothing and only increasing the candidate's expenditure, and I feel there is no necessity to expend even the amount of money which is allowed under the law as it exists to-day. I well remember in 1931, at the time of the financial crisis, I cut my election expenditure down by two-thirds and retained my seat, in fact, increasing my majority. If we want to face the expense of plastering our constituencies with very flattering and untrue photographs in the form of posters, at the cost of hundreds of pounds, it is no good coming to this House and complaining. I hope that your Conference, Mr. Speaker, when it comes to sit, will examine this all important question of expenses, because in every quarter of the House we are anxious for the gates to be as wide open as possible to talented and experienced young men who would make a valuable contribution in this House, irrespective of financial standing.

There are many ways in which expenses can be cut down, some have already been suggested in the course of the Debate, and they include distribution of the poll cards by the authorities instead of by the candidates. I have always followed the practice mentioned by other hon. Members and only used the free postage which has been placed at my disposal. I have never indulged in the luxury of an extra paid postage, as one can do. In other ways expenditure could be cut down. If agents were not faced with the necessity of hiring halls and including the cost in their election expenses it would go some way towards reducing expenditure. Perhaps halls might be provided by the local authorities at the public cost.

In conclusion, please allow me to express the hope that it will be possible for an interim report on questions of redistribution of seats to be submitted to the Government with all possible speed so as to ensure that the new Measure is ready before a General Election takes place. We have all expressed our true belief in a democratic form of Government. Let us therefore take this opportunity to prove to the world, by our unanimous acceptance of this Motion, and by the setting up of your Conference, Mr. Speaker, as well as by the passing of the subsequent legislation, that our system and practice is not only worthy of the Mother of Parliaments but from now on will always be up-to-date and in step with changing conditions.