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1931 And All That, Part I

John Rentoul

TUclynesJ2 1931 And All That, Part I2 February 1931 John Clynes (Lab), Home Secretary (right):

It is not claimed for the alternative vote that it is an absolutely accurate method. Even in this matter, as in so many other matters, a Labour Government must fall short of absolute perfection. It does, however, prevent the election of a candidate against the wishes of the constituency. Whatever its theoretical disadvantages, it cannot be denied that the alternative vote is the best method of removing the most serious defect which our existing system of single-member constituencies possesses, namely, the return of minority candidates. I have been in this House continuously for 25 years, and I have frequently heard the gibes directed sometimes from this and sometimes from that side of the House against both Members and Governments who have been returned here by the votes of minorities. The more reason is there for doing something to remove the taunt that anyone is returned by a minority of votes in the future.

The alternative vote was unanimously recommended by the Royal Commission of 1910. The question of the desirability of reforming the electoral system was again considered by the Speaker’s Conference of 1917. That conference recommended that in the large boroughs the experiment of proportional representation should be tried, but a majority of the conference also recommended that the system of the alternative vote should be applied to all constituencies returning a single Member. As is well known, the Bill which subsequently became the Representation of the People Act, 1918, contained proposals for the adoption of the alternative vote. Those proposals were carried by narrow majorities in the House of Commons, but were rejected by the House of Lords in favour of proportional representation for the larger boroughs.

The form of AV initially proposed by the Labour Government was in fact what is now known as the Supplementary Vote, the system used for the election of the Mayor of London, in which voters express only two preferences. Clynes explained:

In the main our contests are fought with but three candidates representing the three parties, and this Bill is designed, not with a view to covering the rare and exceptional case, but to cover, in the main, the general conditions in which our Parliamentary elections are fought. We, therefore, decided in favour of limiting an elector’s choice to two candidates. That does him no wrong, for it gives him an alternative vote, but not alternative votes for several candidates who may be standing in any exceptional contest. There are in the main, as I say, only three parties, as far as they are parties which can at any time in the immediate, or even remote future, hope to form a Government. The Government are, of course, aware that there are other methods of giving effect to the system of the alternative vote. We have decided that the method proposed in the Bill is fair and reasonable to the electors, that it is the simplest, the best and the easiest to work, and, therefore, on all grounds, compared with others, I hope that it will commend itself to the favour of the present House of Commons.

Sir Samuel Hoare (Con) showed that the wilful misunderstanding of preferential voting is not a new phenomenon of the 21st century:

The principal proposal is the introduction of what is called the alternative vote. The Home Secretary has described that proposal this afternoon. In a sentence, it means that when there are more than two candidates, if the first candidate does not get a clear majority of the votes, the second choices of the third candidate are allocated to the other two candidates. That all sounds very fair and very simple until you come to analyse it. Let me try in a sentence or two to investigate it a little further. If second choices are to count, why should the last candidate be knocked out? It might well be that if he were left in the second preferences of the first and second candidates might in the end have made him the winner. Why, again, are the first two candidates not to be allowed to exercise their second choices at all? …

I come now to my last objection to the alternative vote, and I am not sure that this last objection is not the strongest. The ordinary elector does not want it at all. He is not very much interested in politics. He is much more interested in the Derby, in the Cup Ties, in the weather, than he is in our proceedings here. He regards a General Election as an inevitable nuisance, and the sooner and simpler it is over the better for him. What he wishes to see is that the man who comes first past the post is declared the winner. Our main object should not be to confuse the elector by a system which he will not understand and which he might resent, but to keep the system as simple as possible and keep him as closely interested in politics as we can. There was a by-election close to my own constituency a little more than a year ago, and a canvasser I know was trying to get one of the voters to promise to give his vote. He said, “Will you vote for the Conservative candidate?” The elector said, “No.” The canvasser said, “You had better vote for someone. Will you not then vote for the Socialist.” The man said, “No. There is only one man I shall vote for to send to the House of Commons.” When the canvasser asked, “Who is that,” the man said, “Guy Fawkes.” I am not at all sure that the answer of this voter does not represent the feelings of a good many others towards our distinguished selves in this House, and if we adopt the confusing system of the alternative vote and the electors see the man who comes out second suddenly for no apparent reason coming out top he will feel a little more sick of politics than he does now and will have less interest in our proceedings than he has at the present time. For all these reasons I maintain that the alternative vote, theoretically, cannot be defended and in practice that it will lay us open to every kind of injustice and anomaly. Further, I maintain that it does not ensure the representation of minorities, and, lastly, that it is the last thing in the world that the ordinary elector desires.

Sir Herbert Samuel (deputy leader, Liberal Party) admitted that that he would have preferred proportional representation for multi-member boroughs and AV elsewhere, a familiar confession, rather elegantly finessed:

We do not deny that the alternative vote over the whole country is to us a second best policy. It is said that the second best is the enemy of the best, but it has also been very well said that although the second best is the enemy of the best, it is also the enemy of the third best, of the fourth best, and of the worst of all; and this second best is the enemy of the present system, which, in our view, is the worst of all.

In the main, the alternative vote does enable the electors to do that which they want to do, and that should be the aim of any electoral system. Whenever there are three candidates, there are vast numbers of our fellow-citizens, millions of them taken in the aggregate, who are faced by this dilemma: They want to support the candidate of the party which in the main they favour, but from the history of the constituency they know that their own candidate has practically no chance of success, or at all events his success may be very doubtful. In those circumstances, what are they to do? Above all, they are against a particular party, and they would regret most of all to see their constituency represented by the member of that party. They want to keep him out. Are they to vote for the candidate of their own choice, knowing that he will be at the bottom of the poll, or are they to vote for the candidate most likely to defeat the one to whom they most object?

That notion that it is the second preferences which decide the result of the election is incorrect. They no more decide the result of the election than an equal number of first preferences to either of the other two candidates; just as in a division in this House you may say that it is the last voter, if it is carried by one vote, who decides the result of a division.

John Buchan (yes, the novelist, at the time a Unionist MP for the Combined Scottish Universities):

The alternative vote will … do one thing; it will undoubtedly favour a middle party in the country, a party which, possibly, is not desired by any large section of the people, but is tolerated because it is believed that it will do very little harm. It will favour the nondescript in politics, the man who steers a wary, middle course, whom the Tories would prefer to a stout Socialist, and whom the Socialists would prefer to a stout Tory, because he is a feeble creature. It would aggrandise a political inertia—any policy of “Safety First,” any negative and colourless or stagnant policy.

Sir Hugh O’Neill (Con):

Dealing with the main object of the Bill, the alternative vote, surely it is universally admitted that the greatest electoral anomaly that faces the country now is the fact that the Liberal party polled over 5,000,000 votes at the last General Election, that is nearly a fourth of all the votes polled, and only obtained a tenth of the representation in the House. It is because of that anomaly that the Liberal party, and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Darwen (Sir H. Samuel), are so anxious to get some measure of electoral reform. But how on earth is the alternative vote going to help that situation? It would undoubtedly be helped by proportional representation. That would give equivalent regard to the number of votes cast in the country for the different parties concerned… In the Ullswater Electoral Reform Conference we members of the Conservative party joined together with the members of the Liberal party in saying that, if there was to be any change in the electoral laws of the country, it could best be carried out by adopting a system of proportional representation. The reason why we find the alternative vote rather than proportional representation inserted in this Bill is that the Socialist party—I do not think I am putting it too highly—are bitterly opposed now to the principle of proportional representation.

Parliamentary reporting from 1931 to be continued. Now over to the House of Commons for the same debate in 2011.

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  • JOHNNY LUNAN

    The flaw in most of the ” strong government ” arguments for the First Past the Post system is that in 2010 , it did not deliver a government with a workable single party majority [ though it nearly did ] . I am sceptical about AV but prepared to be persuaded .

  • popskihaynes

    As ever, excellent content John, both interesting and a delight to read. A ‘bit shocking’ that 100 years later we have moved not a jot but then, perhaps life is ever so !


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