Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Cumulative Voting

In our former articles on cumulative voting we have answered, to the best of our power, the principal arguments of its advocates; but as the matter is one which appears to us to involve the whole question of the principle on which Reform is to be advocated, and on which in these columns it always has been advocated, we propose to sum up our views on the subject. First, let us consider a little the phrase which is continually used of the tyranny of the majority, from which, it is alleged, a way of escape is opened to us by the adoption of the principle of cumulative voting. It may be unpleasant to philosophical politicians and to many other people to make the admission, but the whole meaning of popular institutions and representative government is that the majority for the time being is king, and must have its way, and is to be influenced only by persuasion. Still when all is said and done this is the plain truth, and there is no use in struggling against it. If it were now clearly ascertained that upon some specific subject a considerable majority of the people of England deliberately wished for a given measure, and that a minority had by artful constitutional devices contrived to prevent that measure from passing, how long would the constitutional devices stand between the majority and its wish? Accepting the extreme case stated by "W. R. G.," suppose that the whole 658 members of the House of Commons were to be elected in a single list, and suppose 700,000 voters were in favour of one list and 500,000 in favour of another, the 500,000 most undoubtedly must give way. "Would this," adds "W. R. G.," "be fair or decent, or would it be endured?" Certainly it would. If two people are driving one horse, and one wants to go right and the other left, one must give way. If they stand still, both give way. "Are the 500,000," says "'W. R. G.," "to be excluded and unheard?" Excluded certainly, but not unheard so long as they have tongues and pens. Commanding, not debating, is the function of a legislator; and the minority, those who vote against a measure, are always and of necessity defeated. Are the 700,000 to give way to the 500,000? One of these results must happen sooner or later unless public business is brought to a standstill. We bear much of the tyranny of majorities, but in all political systems which are not anarchies there must be a sovereign power somewhere. That sovereign will be regarded as a tyrant by every subject who dislikes his orders. If a continually shifting majority is sovereign, you will probably get as good a tyrant as you are likely to have in any other form. And a party which really is tyrannical will not long continue to be a majority. The tyranny of the majority is a pretty phrase, but those who use it would do well to try to answer the following questions:-- Do they propose to have any sovereign power at all? If not, how do they avoid anarchy? If they do, is a majority, or a minority, or a miscellaneous assemblage, which is neither one nor the other, but a sort of anomalous cross between the two, to be sovereign? and Why do they think that the minority or the anomalous assemblage will make a better sovereign than the majority?

The more the proposal of the cumulative vote is examined the more clearly will it appear to rest upon two suppositions, the truth of which would involve the truth of the most extreme doctrines of the most extreme school of Radicalism. The first of these suppositions is that the interests of the majority and the minority are irreconcilably opposed. The second is that the minority is composed of the upper classes. Put these two propositions together, and you get the result that the rich and educated are at once the natural enemies of the poor and uneducated, and enemies who, but for artificial securities, would be at their mercy. To avoid such a catastrophe, it is said, give the cumulative vote, by which the rich and educated will be enabled to hold their own. The mere statement of the argument shows what it is worth. Its terms show that it amounts to the suggestion of a trivial means for the attainment of an undesirable end. If the interests of the rich and poor are really opposed, it is for the rich to give way. If the poor are really much stronger than the rich, the cumulative vote will make no difference. The advocates of the cumulative vote are like people who earnestly press their neighbours to subscribe for a mop to enable Mrs. Partington to sweep the Thames out of its bed. We wish the Thames to run its course, and we (lo not believe in Mrs. Partington's mop.

That this is the true meaning of the proposal, and that each of the two propositions in question is false, is easily shown. If it is not alleged that the interests of the majority are opposed to those of the minority, why should elaborate contrivances be invented for giving an artificial power to the minority? If the majority are right, why should not the majority govern? If the majority are wrong, why are we to assume that they will not be open to persuasion by the ordinary processes of political discussion and agitation? It is obvious that this can be answered only by saying that the majority are not the best judges of their own interests, which is contrary to the very first principles of popular government; or by saying that their interests are opposed to those of the minority, and that the interests of the minority should be preferred; and this no doubt is what the advocates of the representation of minorities really mean or would find themselves to mean if they would think the matter out. In all that they write upon the subject it is easy to detect the tacit assumption that the minority would represent talent, education, wealth, and refinement, and that the majority would represent ignorance, violence, and animosity to all established institutions. The minority is to be composed of the righteous men who are to save the city. The majority answer to this people which knoweth not the Lord and is cursed. This appears to us to be a misconception of the whole state of the political position of the country which is absolutely false and fatal to all prospect of good government and sound reform. If it were true we could only say--"occidit, occidit spes omnis et fortuna nostri nominis." If the rich and poor are really opposed in interests and sympathies, we are and ought to be on the brink of a revolution, and wise and good men ought to wish for one. We utterly deny the truth of any such supposition, and we advocate Reform solely because we deny and renounce it. Our case is that the interests of all classes are substantially identical; that the existence of masses of wealth is essential to the employment of labour, and that realized capital forms the fund by which labour is supported and want relieved; that the existence of a large class which has leisure enough to learn to think, to insist upon all that we mean by refinement, and into which any one may by industry and good conduct earn an entrance for himself and his family, is essential not merely as a stimulus to industry, but for the purpose of conducting public business; and these facts, we further say, are as well known to the poor as to the rich, and as little likely to be forgotten or undervalued by them. They are and ought to be regarded as the natural friends and supporters of wealth and education, the willing and intelligent critics and followers of those who possess them. In a word, we regard the whole nation as an organized body, capable, to use Milton’s splendid language, "of the greatest designs that can be attempted to make a church or kingdom happy." Taking this view, it appears to us undignified, cowardly, and narrow-minded in the extreme for the upper classes to be looking out for substitutes for rotten boroughs, and to be admitting that they are altogether incompetent to the task of leading, persuading, and heading a majority. The justification, and the only possible justification, for their existence is that they are the natural leaders of the nation, the natural friends, instructors, and representatives of the poor. They are the officers of the regiment freely chosen by the men, who, as a matter of fact, actually do, and from the nature of things must, have in their hands the final and unquestionable sanction of physical force. Let them try to fill this position worthily, let them, really believe and act on the belief that they are not a privileged minority, but the natural leaders of the majority, and they will find their whole position infinitely strengthened and improved. They will be what they are and always have been, but their power will be held by a more secure tenure, and will rest on a broader basis. What they have to do is to lead the majority, not to admit themselves to form a minority. If they take the first course, they will constitute a natural aristocracy. If they take the second, they will degenerate into a paltry and narrow-minded clique. Nothing is so narrow, so bigoted, so essentially inaccessible to reason as a minority artificially invested with political power.

Such are the general principles on which we are opposed to cumulative voting; but there are several minor considerations which are entitled to great weight. One of these is the effect on the constituencies. The advocates of the measure write as if a man had no influence in an election because the candidate for whom he votes is not returned -- as if the minority were effectually silenced by the majority.  Surely the least experience of education contests will show that this is not the case.  Elections depend on an immense variety of considerations, and it continually happens that a body of voters, not large enough to return A., are quite large enough to return C., whom the minority much prefer to B, though they might like A. better still.  They are thus to a certain degree represented by C.  He cannot afford to offend them.  He is obliged to be careful on certain questions, and to abide by pledges expressed or implied.  Enable a minority to make sure of their man, and you put a stop to all this.  You create in fact, though not in name, two one-member constituencies in one borough, divided not by local boundaries but by opinions, and you get all the old difficulties over again in a slightly different form.  Instead of a contest between Conservative and Liberal, you get one contest between Liberal and Liberal and another contest between Conservative and Conservative.  1,000 plumpers will secure one seat, but what will secure the 1,000 plumpers?  If the 530 voters who give them do not go together, they do not return their man.  If they do not go together, they have to sink their differences, and thus the awful form of the tyrant majority appears again, though upon a more contracted scale.  The 300 say to the 200, Unless you take our candidate we shall none of us get any member at all; and the 200 have thus to lose the man of their choice.  You may cut, and carve and stitch, and hem as much as ever you please, but your blanket will never cover more than a given space, whether the top is cut off and put at the bottom, or the bottom cut off and put at the top.

Moreover at by-elections the most grotesque results would be produced.  The majority immediately return their own member, and the Cabinet Minister and his minority are left lamenting.  Again, a vacancy occurs towards the end of a Parliament in a borough where there is a minority constituency.  They of course cannot return a member of their own, though they will be able to do so at the next general election.  The place, therefore, will be filled up by a supplemental member for the majority during the interval.  Job M.P.’s of this sort are not a desirable element to introduce into the House.  The general result appears to be that the whole proposal is one in which practical inconveniences and theoretical objections flow from and involve each other.

Pall Mall Gazette, March 15, 1867.

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