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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 52

Mr. Cobden on "Re-Distribution of Seats."

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Mr. Cobden on "Re-Distribution of Seats."

Buckle crest of the Cobden Club

The letter which appears below was the last letter Mr. Cobden ever wrote. It was addressed to Mr. Thomas Bayley Potter, who had sent to Mr. Cobden a letter he had received from Mr. John Stuart Mill on the subject of Minority Voting and Proportional Representation. Mr. Potter asked Mr. Cobden's opinion, and this letter was the result. At the present juncture Mr. Cobden's opinion will have a general interest, and cannot be too widely known. It was dated March 22, 1865, from Suffolk Street, Pall Mall, where he died:—

"Everything from Mr. Mill is entitled to respectful consideration. But I confess, after the best attention to the proposed representation of minorities which I can give it, I am so stupid as to fail to see its merits. He speaks of 50,000 electors having to elect five members, and that 30,000 may elect them all, and to obviate this he would give the 20,000 minority two votes. But I would give only one vote to each elector, and one representative to each constituency. Instead of the 50,000 returning five in a lump, I would have five constituencies of 10,000, each returning one member. Thus, if the metropolis, for example, were entitled, with a fair distribution of electoral power, to 40 votes, I would divide it into 40 districts or wards, each to return one member; and in this way every class and every variety of opinion would have a chance of a fair representation. Belgravia, Marylebone, St. James's, St. Giles's, Whitechapel, Spitalfields, &c., would each and all have their members. I don't know any better plan for giving all opinions a chance of being heard; and, after all, it is opinions that are to be represented. If the minority have a faith that their opinions, and not those of the majority, are the true ones, then let them agitate and discuss until their principles are in the ascendant.

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This is the motive for political action and the healthy agitation of public life."

On the 18th of August, 1859, Mr. Cobden, in a Reform Speech addressed to the people of Rochdale after his return to Parliament for that borough at the General Election, spoke as follows on the question of the Re-distribution of Seats:—

"This brings me to the question of the Re-distribution of the Franchise, and I would say, gentlemen, I have a very strong opinion that where you have to give, as you would have to give in any new Reform Bill, a considerable number of new members to your large cities—as, for instance, Manchester, Liverpool, and the like, and Rochdale will, of course, be included in the number—it would be the most convenient and the fairest plan if you apportioned your large towns into wards and gave one representative for each ward. I mean that instead of lumping two or four members together and letting them be the representatives of a whole town or city, I would divide the place into four wards, and I would let each ward send one member. I think there is a fairness and convenience about that plan which ought to recommend it to Lord John Russell and to every one who has to handle a new Reform Bill. For instance, you will find in a town, generally, that what is called the aristocracy of the town live in one part, and the working classes live in another. Now, I say if, in dividing a town into three or four wards, it should happen that one of the districts where the working class predominates should have the opportunity of sending a member which that class may consider will most fairly represent their views, and if in another part of the town another class, living there, choose a member that more completely represents theirs, I do not see why the different classes or parties in the community should not have that opportunity of giving expression to their opinions. I think it would be much better than having two or four members for one borough; for I have observed, in watching the progress of elections in England, that where you have one member representing a borough, as in the case of Rochdale, there is a tendency to maintain a higher degree of public spirit—there is a more decided line of demarcation in parties; and men are more earnest in their political views, than where they have two members to a borough; for I have frequently seen, as in the case of Liverpool, Blackburn, and many other towns that I could name, that the people begin to get tired of contests, and acquiesce in a division of the town. They say, let us vote one and one, and do not let us have any more political contests. That is a very bad state of things, because if a country is to maintain its free institutions, it must constantly have political discussions and contests."

T. Bayley Potter.

Messrs. Cassell & Company, Limited, La Belle Sauvage Yard, London, E.C., supply the Cobden Club Leaflets in packets of 100, price 1s.