Orders of the Day — House of Commons (Redistri Bution of Seats) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10th October 1944.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Frederick Pethick-Lawrence Mr Frederick Pethick-Lawrence , Edinburgh East 12:00 am, 10th October 1944

I do not think that you can compare those countries with this country and I will leave that to the hon. Member to develop in his own way. I say that it is likely to make for more sections and more factions. It is not at all impossible that there might become a religious faction in this House, and there might be sections returned to promote various nostrums, all of which might be inimical to the proper running of this House. It is claimed for Proportional Representation—I think with a certain amount of truth—that it will tend to reduce the swing between one election and another. And a very likely result of this is—and in fact in some of the countries which at present have Proportional Representation it has produced this result—that you will have in successive Parliaments one party practically in continuous government of the country. The only difference between one Parliament and the next will be that you will have a slightly larger or a slightly smaller majority and a slight change of personnel. This tends to produce one continuous policy. Some may think that to be a good thing, but I do not take that view. In my opinion it is good that a Government should run the risk of suffering defeat at an election, with the possibility that an entirely different Government composed of new men with new ideas might come in and fake their place and justify an entirely different policy. That is a more healthy state of affairs than is the case in those countries where the Government know well that as a result of an election there may be a little swing this way or that but that broadly they will remain in office, and will have the conduct of affairs for several years to come. That is why I find myself in fundamental disagreement with the objects of those who are in favour of Proportional Representation. A good many other objections will no doubt be developed in the course of this Debate. I turn to the other side of the question. What is the price to be paid for this alteration? The first and main price that will have to be paid is the bringing into existence of unwieldly constituencies and a complete loss of personal touch between the Member of Parliament and those whom he professes to represent in this House. We are all aware that the large numbers of our existing electorates present a difficulty in representing them individually in this House, but those of us who do our work carefully and thoughtfully manage to a large extent to come into touch with our people, and if they have individual grievances we are to a very large extent able to represent them in this House and in private correspondence with the Minister. Now it is suggested that our constituencies shall, in effect, be multiplied five or sevenfold, and there can be no question whatever that that is going to remove all the sense of personal relationship which exists at the present time. It would be impossible, both at the election and afterwards, for the great majority of candidates to get their personality across in their constituencies. It is true that some national leader, coming into one of these multi-member constituencies, may become the figurehead of the election but he will not be the one to do the donkey work so necessary when he is elected.

This difficulty is not met by the suggestion of those who favour Proportional Representation, that M.Ps. can choose that part of the constituency for which they regard themselves as Member after the election has taken place. Some hon. Member very truly said that a man elected by a seven-Member constituency might be met by someone who would say, "I am one of your supporters; I voted for you but you cannot represent my grievance because you have chosen to represent another part of the constituency, but not the part in which I live." That is impossible. Sitting for part of Edinburgh I am frequently approached by persons from other parts of Edinburgh with grievances which they bring before me. I make this division. I say, "If your point is a general point on a large political issue I will deal with it." But if they come about a particular grievance, such as that a pension has not been paid or that a husband or son is in the Army and there is something they want done about it, I say that they must go to their own Mem- ber, and because they are not my own constituents I have the right to say that. But if the whole of Edinburgh was a single constituency, and I had selected East Edinburgh as the part for which I chose to regard myself as the Member I do not think that I could take that line, and if I did, it would be considered a getaway by the constituent.

The second price to be paid is that there is no real solution in Proportional Representation for by-elections, and again, no proposal which is made by its advocates actually meets that difficulty. Even if some such scheme of sub-division were brought about as I have referred to and a by-election held in one past of the constituency, it would be throwing over the whole basis of Proportional Representation because it would be a single-member constituency. Further, the main advantage of a by-election as we know it is that, by comparing the result of the by-election with the result of the preceding general election, some idea of the change of public opinion in that constituency is reached. But if the previous election has been fought on Proportional Representation and the by-election in a single constituency, no base for comparison will exist.

Finally, another great disadvantage that I see is the wangling that will go on in these large constituencies. First of all, there will be a good deal of rivalry between members of the same party as to which of them is to be regarded as the principal candidate, and their fight, to some extent, will be between themselves and the members of their own party. If the electorate put, say, myself at the head of the poll of my party in the constituency, I shall get in; my colleagues in the same party who get perhaps only a slightly smaller number of votes will be kept out. Therefore, one of my objectives will be to thrust myself in front of my own colleagues at elections. I think that will be bad. In the second place, there will be wangling between myself and the members of some other party. I shall want them to see that their supporters give me their second preference. That, also, I think will be bad. Therefore, instead of having the clear-cut issue you have at the present time in a single-member constituency you will have a good deal of wangling before and during the election, and it will be a great disadvantage. All these disadvantages and difficulties cannot be as lightly brushed aside as the advocates of Proportional Representation suggest. But if the objects they have in view were in my mind extremely desirable, I might be prepared to pay the price, and endeavour, as best I could, to face these difficulties. The essential point of my argument, however, is that I do not think their object itself is good. I regard their main argument as quite unsound, and I regard the price they ask us to pay for this change in our political system as exceedingly high, and both the change itself and the price they are calling upon us to pay for it would, I think, be subversive of the long-established traditions of our Parliamentary representative system. For those reasons I hope this House will to-day give an overwhelming vote against this Amendment and give the quietus to this false idea which has so long possessed a small number of the people of this country.