Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Cumulative Voting Considered

"W. R. G.," who wrote yesterday in the Pall Mall Gazette a very cogent letter in favour of the principle of cumulative voting, says he is sure the failure of this journal to support the principle "can only be attributed to its never having given it any serious consideration." If this means that we have not given it exhaustive consideration, we are not disinclined to plead guilty. But we have gone far enough into the subject to stumble over certain difficulties which appear to us very considerable ones. We will explain what these difficulties are; if they turn out to be unsubstantial, so much the better.

We suppose we ought first to consider what is the theory, the intention, of the system by which the country sends representatives to Parliament to make and unmake its laws. The business is assigned to various places-- some in which barter is predominant; some which are employed in various and very different manufactures; some which live by shipping; some which are the centres of agricultural industry-places which have a great variety of interests, and in which very different modes of thought and habits of life prevail-- as, for instance, in Guildford and Halifax, Coventry and Hartlepool. In these places a certain body of voters send representatives to Parliament; and their method of doing so is the very natural one of election, or choice. What is meant to be , the result of election?--obviously, that a man who reflects the predominant body of opinion in the place shall be its representative; in other words, that he shall represent the majority of voters in that particular place, and, so representing them, be himself a voter in the House of Commons. That we take to be the intention of our electoral system; that is the sense of it. But some boroughs, some cities, are more populous and important than others; and it has been agreed without any dissent at all that a place like Birmingham ought to have more weight in the councils of the country than a place like Andover. So, while the latter borough has only one voice in Parliament, the former has two. Will it be said it has two in order to send difference of opinion to the House of Commons? -- that that is the fundamental motive? We think we may safely assume that nobody will say so. Birmingham has two members because it is thought she ought to have two voices in the decisions of Parliament. The idea, the intention that whatever influence she has there shall be in accordance with the predominant opinion of the place at the time of the election, remains undisturbed. If parties are pretty evenly balanced, then sometimes one prevails, sometimes another, and sometimes the power is divided; but if this happens they must be pretty evenly balanced, and the rules of the game remain unbroken.

This is the broad principle of our electoral system as it at present exists. Is it a sound system? To us it seems to be so; and it is the system which governs almost all the affairs of life in which men are associated with equal powers of government and an assumed equality of capacity for the task-- which is the case here. The preponderating mass of equally privileged opinion is carried into law. Now, to begin with, it seems to us that this principle must be abandoned if the cumulative vote is accorded. The plea for this measure is indeed based upon an assertion that there should be a representation of minorities. But it is important to understand precisely what is meant by the representation of minorities. What do you mean by a minority? You mean a tolerably strong minority which is Liberal in one place, Radical in another, Conservative in another. You mean that when such a minority is in any borough "respectably" strong it ought to be represented. It would be absurd to say that the principle of any Radical, or Liberal, or Conservative minority needs "representation" in Parliament as matters stand-- that it has not already got what "W. R. G." calls "a hearing in the great council of the nation." What you mean, then, is that any "respectable minority" of any party in any borough ought to be represented in Parliament as a corporate body, so to speak. Now we come to another question. What do you mean by the "representation" of such a minority? It is one thing, for instance, to "have a hearing in the great council of the nation," as "W. R. G." moderately puts it, quite another to have a share in the decisions of that council. But members of Parliament have not only a "hearing," they have a vote: and one man's vote is as potential as another's. Therefore, what we come to is this-- "W. R. G.," and those who agree with him, propose that a respectable minority in most counties and boroughs shall have as much actual power as the majority.

Let us always remember that this privilege is demanded as a mere act of justice to individual minorities in individual places, and then let us see how the privilege works. In boroughs which return one member it does not, and cannot work at all. So far, that which should be done as a mere act of justice cannot be done by the scheme which is to do it. It can be done for a two-member constituency; but there the justice which is due to the minority is fatal to the just claims of the majority, and to the whole system of representation by election. There the preponderating opinion of the people is not empowered; it is neutralized. One voter is as good a man as two voters, and has as great a share in the government of the country as his neighbours on either side of him. Five hundred and twenty electors have as good a voice in Parliament as a thousand of their fellows in the same town. From the neighbouring one-member town a similar minority, even a far stronger and more "respectable" one-- a minority of nine to ten, may be-- behold this spectacle in the soothing consciousness that philosophical reformers know not how to give to them a similar measure of "justice." Now it seems to us that here we have a very anomalous state of things, which also to many eyes would appear most unjust. You give extraordinary power to some minorities, you establish a real grievance amongst other minorities, neutralize the rightful power (or what with very good reason they would think their rightful power) of many majorities, and you introduce confusion into fundamental principle of representation by election. There is something in "W. R. G.'s" argument that in most cases the minority is nearly as great as the majority; but that is not enough to prove that minorities should have equal power with the majorities; and a minority is a minority always, as the Queen's Ministers acknowledge when they accept as decisive of a policy the prevalence of half-a-dozen voices in a divided chamber of 600 men.

What have we to balance against these inconveniences? The fact that in three-member constituencies the proposal may work well, because in that case the minority in any given place would have representation and a voice, while yet the predominant opinion would have the greater power and a predominant voice. Where the scheme can work in this way we have nothing much to say against it. But is it possible that a scheme can be so perfect, so just, so thoroughly satisfactory all round, which produces in its operation three totally different results? For the one-member constituencies it is one thing, for the two-member constituencies another, and for three (or four) member constituencies another. To one it would deny the justice which is the very argument for its existence; no minority, however large, could be privileged by it at all. In the second it would give the minority, though it only exceeded half the majority by one or two, as much actual power as that majority. In the third it would give the minority not equal power, but one over which the majority would clearly dominate. There is confusion in the scheme. The way in which it appears to dispense justice amongst the constituencies is this:-- To 150, say, it gives nothing at all-- unless it be grievance; to 230 it gives a great deal more than their due; to eight, ten, twelve only, it gives what may be regarded as a reasonable measure.

Moreover, when we have decided whether this or that proposal is theoretically just, we have yet another important matter to decide-whether it is a practicable one. Supposing that "W. R. G." could prove the cumulative vote to be impregnably just, we should then have to ask him whether he thinks it is likely to be accepted, and whether, if it were set in actual operation, it would work smoothly and without exciting discontent. He seems to have no doubt about it; we have very grave doubts indeed. We do not think it is likely to be accepted, because it is obviously a measure which would strengthen one party in the House of Commons at the expense of the others; and because those other parties have the power to prevent it. "W. R. G." is apparently unwilling to admit that the proposal would return to the House of Commons an increased number of men of one party -- the Conservative; but he will probably admit that whereas there are for all intents and purposes two great parties in the State and not more; one of them -- the Conservatives -- is the minority also; that the greater number of minorities are Conservative; if so, then the obvious tendency of cumulative voting is to return a greater number of Conservative members.  Now, whether that be right or wrong, we think it very unlikely indeed that he Liberals would permit it -- that the Radicals would tolerate it.  Now these last form the most disturbing element in politics.  Suppose the measure passed; can we imagine that they would allow it to rest?  Is it to be supposed that that formidable body of agitators would stand by in any crisis of political strife, and see, without protest, Conservative minorities neutralizing the action of Liberal majorities?  Had the cumulative vote been in operation twenty years ago that spectacle would have been witnessed in dozens of places by as many Liberal constituencies bent on the abolition of the Corn Laws.  What does “W. R. G.” imagine would have been the effect upon the country?  Does he suppose it would have been endured?  Does he think it would be tolerated in any similar conflict in time to come?

A like difficulty applies to Mr. Buxton’s application of the principle.  It seems to be a far more reasonable one, but it is not at all likely to be accepted.  His proposition is: 1. To take away the second seat from all boroughs with a population below 10,000; which, with the seven seats obtained by the disfranchisement of Yarmouth, Reigate, Totnes, and Lancaster, would give forty-four seats for distribution.  2.  After giving, as proposed, one seat apiece to twelve new boroughs and to the London University, to give the remaining thirty-one seats to the twenty largest borough constituencies, and to the eleven largest county constituencies, now represented by two members each.  And in these thirty-one constituencies, and also in the eight counties now represented by three members, to allow every elector to distribute his three votes at his own discretion, thus adopting the cumulative vote in twenty borough and in nineteen county constituencies.  Many of the objections we have suggested against the plan advocated by “W. R. G.” do not apply to this one of Mr. Buxton’s; but let us look at the practicability of it alone -- the chance that the discussion of it may be simply more waste of time.  Thirty-six members of the House of Commons are asked to pass a measure would be to unseat so many men, and to deprive so many constituencies of a power which those men are expected to defend.  But as the boroughs to be dealt with in this way would not be named, the dread of abolition would fall upon a greater number of members than thirty-six.  It seems to us that this element of opposition, joined with others that already exist, would be fatal to the proposition.

To return once more to “W. R. G.” He quotes a saying attributed to Mr. Disraeli that “the business of minorities is to get themselves turned into majorities,” and he brands this general reply to the supporters of cumulative voting as flimsy and flippant.  Nevertheless, we venture to maintain that is the true business of minorities everywhere.  They should convert the majorities; convert themselves into majorities.  Meanwhile majorities must rule.  Enough is not said if we say they ought to govern -- they will govern.  They cannot be content unless they make their predominance felt; it is hopeless to imagine that they will consent to have it neutralized.

Pall Mall Gazette, March 6, 1867.

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