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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 58

Speech of J. S. Mill, Esq., M.P., on Personal Representation

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Speech of J. S. Mill, Esq., M.P., on Personal Representation.

On Clause 9, Mr. Mill rose to substitute the following:—

From and after the passing of the present bill, every local constituency shall, subject to the provisions hereinafter contained, return one member for every quota of its registered electors actually voting at that election, such quota being a number equal to the quotient obtained by dividing by 658 the total number of votes polled throughout the kingdom at the same election, and if such quotient be fractional, the integral number next less. Provided always, that where the number of votes given by the constituency shall not be equal to such quota, the quota may be completed by means of votes given by persons duly qualified as electors in any other part of the United Kingdom; and the candidate who shall have obtained such quota may notwithstanding be returned as member for the said constituency if he shall have obtained a majority of the votes given therein as hereinafter mentioned.

(Elector to vote orally or by voting paper—Voting paper may state a succession of names in case those named in priority have obtained the quota.)

2. Every elector shall vote at his appointed polling place, either orally as heretofore, or by a voting paper, and may on such voting paper state in numerical order the names of any of the candidates at such general election, to one of whom, taken in regular succession, the vote shall be given in case those named first or in priority on such voting paper shall, before it comes to be appropriated, have obtained the quota; but no vote given orally shall be taken for more than one candidate, and no vote given on a voting paper shall be counted for more than one candidate : provided that nothing herein contained shall prevent the transmission of voting papers under the act of the 24th and 25th years of Victoria, chapter 53.

(What candidates are to be returned as members.)

3. The candidates returned as members shall be all those respectively for whom a quota of votes shall have been polled, whether in one or more page 6 than one constituency; and if less than six hundred and fifty-eight candidates have such quota, then those for whom the next greater number of votes have been polled until the number of six hundred and fifty-eight shall be completed; and such of the six hundred and fifty-eight candidates chosen as aforesaid as have the majority or greater number of votes in any local constituency shall be returned as members for such constituency.

(Vacated seats to be filled up by the voters who returned the last member.)

4. Any seat vacated by the acceptance of office, promotion to the peerage, or death of a member, shall be filled by election by the body or majority of the body of voters by whose actual votes he was returned.

(Speaker to lay before Parliament rules for ascertaining the number of votes polled, of the quota, and for regulating form of voting papers and declaring the names of the members.)

5. The Speaker of the House of Commons shall cause to be framed and shall lay before Parliament such rules as may be necessary for ascertaining and for certifying to the returning officers the total number of votes polled, and the number of the quota, for regulating the form of the voting papers, and the record, collection, and disposition thereof, and the appropriation of the same in the order of the names on each paper, the method to be observed in determining and declaring the six hundred and fifty-eight members who have respectively obtained the quota or number of votes nearest to the quota; and for carrying the provisions of this act into effect in any matter not otherwise provided for; and such rules shall, if the House shall so resolve, be entered on the journals, and the same, when so entered, with any amendment or amendments thereof, at any time adopted by the resolution of the House, shall be observed and performed at all future elections by all officers and persons to whose duties respectively the same relate.

The hon. gentleman said:—The proposal to which I am about to call the attention of the House, and which I move as an amendment to the redistribution clauses, because if it were adopted it would itself constitute a complete system of redistribution, has been framed for the purpose of embodying a principle which has not yet been introduced into our discussions—a principle which is overlooked in the practical machinery of our constitution, and disregarded in most of the projects of constitutional reformers, but which I hold, nevertheless, to be most important to the beneficial working of representative government; and if while we are making great changes in our system of representation we omit to engraft this principle upon it, the advantages we obtain by our changes will be very much lessened, and whatever dangers they may be thought to threaten us with will be far greater and more real than they otherwise would be; and this I think I can establish by reasons so clear and conclusive that, though I cannot expect to obtain at once the assent of the House, I do confidently hope to induce many members of it to take the subject into serious consideration. I cannot, indeed, hold out as an inducement that the principle I contend for is page 7 fitted to be a weapon of attack or defence for any political party. It is neither democratic nor aristocratic—neither Tory, Whig, nor Radical; or, let me rather say, it is all these at once: it is a principle of fair play to all parties and opinions without distinction : it helps no one party or section to bear down others but is for the benefit of whoever is in danger of being borne down. It is therefore a principle in which all parties may concur, if they prefer permanent justice to a temporary victory; and I believe that what chiefly hinders them is that, as the principle has not yet found its way into the commonplaces of political controversy, many have never heard of it, and many others have heard just enough about it to misunderstand it. In bringing this subject before the House I am bound to prove two things : first, that there is a serious practical evil requiring remedy; and then, that the remedy I propose is practicable, and would be efficacious. I will first speak of the evil. It is a great evil; it is one which exists not only in our own, but in every other representative constitution; we are all aware of it; we all feel and acknowledge it in particular cases; it enters into all our calculations, and bears with a heavy weight upon us all. But as we have always been used to think of it as incurable, we think of it as little as we can; and are hardly aware how greatly it affects the whole course of our affairs, and how prodigious would be the gain to our policy, to our morality, to our civilization itself, if the evil were susceptible of a remedy. This House and the country are now anxiously engaged, and certainly not a day too soon, in considering what can be done for the unrepresented. We are all discussing how many non-electors deserve to-be represented, and in what mode to give them representation. But my complaint is that the electors are not represented. The representation which they seem to have, and which we have been quarrelling about the extension of, is a most imperfect and insufficient representation; and this imperfect and insufficient representation is what we are offering to the new classes of voters whom we are creating. Just consider. In every Parliament there is an enormous fraction of the whole body of electors who are without any direct representation, consisting of the aggregate of the minorities in all the contested elections, together with we know not what minorities in those which, from the hopelessness of success, have not even been contested. All these electors are as completely blotted out from the constituency, for the duration of that Parliament, as if they were legally disqualified; most of them, indeed, are blotted out indefinitely, for in the majority of cases those who are defeated once are likely to be defeated again. Here, therefore, is a large portion of those whom the constitution intends to be represented, a portion which cannot average less page 8 than a third, and may approximate to a half, who are virtually in the position of non-electors. But the local majorities, are they truly represented ? In a certain rough way they are. They have a member or members who are on the same side with themselves in party politics; if they are Conservatives, they have a professed Conservative; if Liberals, a professed Liberal. This is something; it is a great deal, even; but is it everything ? Is it of no consequence to an elector who it is that sits in Parliament as his representative, if only he does not sit on the wrong side of the House ? Sir, we need more than this. We all desire not only that there should be a sufficient number of Conservatives or of Liberals in the House, but that these should, as far as possible, be the best men of their respective parties; and the elector, for himself, desires to be represented by the man who has most of his confidence in all things, and not merely on the single point of fidelity to a party. Now, this is so entirely unattainable under the present system, that it seems like a dream even to think of it as a rule. The only choice offered to the elector is between the two great parties. There are only as many candidates of each party as there are seats to be filled; to start any others would divide the party, and in most cases ensure its defeat. And what determines who these candidates are to be ? Sometimes the mere accident of being first in the field. Sometimes the fact of having stood and been defeated on some previous occasion, when the sensible men of the party did not engage in the contest because they knew it to be hopeless. In general, half a dozen local leaders, who may be honest politicians, but who may be jobbing intriguers, select the candidate, and whether they are of the one kind or the other, their conduct is much the same—they select the gentleman who will spend most money; or, when this indispensable qualification is equally balanced, it answers best to propose somebody who has no opinions but the party ones; for every opinion which he has of his own, and is not willing to abnegate, will probably lose him some votes, and give the opposite party a chance. How many electors are there, I wonder, in the United Kingdom, who are represented by the person whom, if they had a free choice, they would have themselves selected to represent them ? In many constituencies, probably not one. I am inclined to think that almost the only electors who are represented exactly as they would wish to be are those who were bribed; for they really have got for their members the gentlemen who bribed highest. Sometimes, perhaps, the successful candidate's own tenants would have voted for him in preference to any one else, however wide a choice had been open to them. But in most cases the selection is the result of a compromise, even the leaders not proposing the man they would have liked best, but being obliged to concede page 9 something to the prejudices of other members of the party. Having thus, as I think, made out a sufficient case of evil requiring remedy, let me at once state the remedy I propose. My proposal, then, is this: That votes should be received in every locality, for others than the local candidates. An elector who declines to vote for any of the three or four persons who offer themselves for his own locality, should be allowed to bestow his vote on any one who is a candidate anywhere, whether put up by himself or by others. If the elector avails himself of this privilege, he will naturally vote for the person he most prefers, the one person among all that are willing to serve who would represent him best; and if there are found in the whole kingdom other electors, in the proper number, who fix their choice on the same person, that person should be declared duly elected. Some number of electors there must be who may be considered entitled to one representative—what that number is depends on the numbers of the House, compared with the total number of electors in the country. Suppose that there is one member for every 5,000 registered electors, or one for every 3,000 actual voters, then every candidate who receives 3,000 votes would be returned to this House in whatever parts of the country his voters might happen to live. This is the whole of my proposal, as far as its substance is concerned. To give it effect, some subsidiary arrangements are necessary, which I shall immediately state. But I must first notice an objection which presents itself on the threshold, and has so formidable an appearance that il prevents many persons from giving any further consideration to the subject. It is objected that the plan destroys the local character of the representation. Every constituency, it is said, is a group having certain interests and feelings in common, and if you disperse these groups by allowing the electors to group themselves in other combinations, those interests and feelings will be deprived of their representation. Now I fully admit that the interests and feelings of localities ought to be represented, and I add that they always will be represented, because those interests and feelings exist in the minds of the electors; and as the plan I propose has no effect but to give the freest and fullest play to the individual elector's own preferences, his local preferences are certain to exercise their proper amount of influence. I do not know what better guardian of a feeling can be wanted than the man who feels it, or how it is possible for a man to have a vote, and not carry his interests and feelings, local as well as general, with him to the polling booth. Indeed, it may be set down as certain that the majority of voters in every locality will generally prefer to be represented by one of themselves, or one connected with the place by some special tie. It is chiefly those who know themselves to be locally in a minority, and unable to elect a local representative of their opinions, who would page 10 avail themselves of the liberty of voting on the new principle. As far as the majority were concerned, the only effect would be that their local leaders would have a greatly increased motive to find out and bring forward the best local candidate that could be had, because the electors, having the power of transferring their votes elsewhere, would demand a candidate whom they would feel it a credit to vote for. The average quality of the local representation would consequently be improved, but local interests and feelings would still be represented, as they cannot possibly fail to be, as long as every elector resides in a locality. If, however, the House attaches any weight to this chimerical danger, I would most gladly accept by way of experiment a limited application of the new principle. Let every elector have the option of registering himself either as a local or as a general voter. Let the elections for every county or borough take place on the local registry, as they do at present. But let those who choose to register themselves as members of a national constituency have representatives allowed to them in proportion to their number, and let these representatives and no others be voted for on the new principle. I will now state the additional but very simple arrangements required to enable the plan to work. Supposing 3,000 voters to be the number fixed upon as giving a claim to a representative, it is necessary that no more than this minimum number should be counted for any candidate, for otherwise a few very eminent or very popular names might engross nearly all the votes, and no other person might obtain the required number or any number that would justify his return. No more votes, then, being counted for any candidate than the number necessary for his election, the remainder of those who voted for him would lose their vote unless they were allowed to put on their voting paper a second name, for whom the vote could be used if it was not wanted by the candidate who stood first. In case this second candidate also should not need the vote, the voter might add a third, or any greater number, in the order of his preference. This is absolutely all that the elector would have to do more than he does at present; and I think it must be admitted that this is not a difficult idea to master, and not beyond the comprehension of the simplest elector. The only persons on whom anything more troublesome would devolve are the scrutineers, who would have to sort the voting papers, and see for which of the names written in it each of them ought to be counted. A few simple rules would be necessary to guide the scrutineers in this process. My amendment entrusts the duty of drawing up those rules to the judgment and experience of the right lion, gentleman who presides over our deliberations, subject to the approbation of the House. Let me now ask hon. members is there anything in all this either incomprehensible or insuperably page 11 difficult of execution ! I can assure the House that I have not concealed any difficulty. I have given a complete, though a brief, account of what most hon. members must have heard of, but few, I am afraid, know much about—the system of personal representation proposed by my eminent friend, Mr. Hare—a man distinguished by that union of large and enlightened general principles, with an organizing intellect and a rare fertility of practical contrivance, which together constitute a genius for legislation. People who have merely heard of Mr. Hare's plan have taken it into their heads that it is particularly hard to understand and difficult to execute. But the difficulty is altogether imaginary: to the elector there is no difficulty at all; to the scrutineers, only that of performing correctly an almost mechanical operation. Mr. Hare, anxious to leave nothing vague or uncertain, has taken the trouble to discuss in his book the whole detail of the mode of sorting the voting papers. People glance at this, and because they cannot take it all in at a glance it seems to them very mysterious. But when was there any act of Parliament that could be understood at a glance? and how can gentlemen expect to understand the details of a plan unless they first possess themselves of its principle ? If we were to read a description, for example, of the mode in which letters are sorted at the Post-office, would it not seem to us very complicated ? Yet, among so vast a number of letters, how seldom is any mistake made. Is it beyond the compass of human ability to ascertain that the first and second names on a voting paper have been already voted for by the necessary quota, and that the vote must be counted for the third ? And does it transcend the capacity of the agents of the candidates, the chief registrar, or a committee of this House, to find out whether this simple operation has been honestly and correctly performed? If these are not insuperable difficulties, I can assure the House that they will find there are no others. Many will think that I greatly over-estimate the importance of securing to every elector a direct representation, because those who are not represented directly are represented indirectly. If Conservatives are not represented in the Tower Hamlets, or Liberals in West Kent, there are plenty of Conservatives and Liberals returned elsewhere; and those who are defeated may console themselves by the knowledge that their party is victorious in many other places. Their party. Yes: but is that all we have to look to ? Is representation of parties all we have a right to demand from our representative system ? If that were so we might as well put up three flags inscribed with the words, Tory, Whig, and Radical, and let the electors make their choice among the flags, and when they have voted, let the leaders of the winning party select the particular persons who are to page 12 represent it. In this way we should have, I venture to say, an admirable representation of the three parties: all the seats which fell to the lot of each party would be filled by its steadiest and ablest adherents, by those who would not only serve the party best in the House, but do it most credit with the country. All political parties, merely as such, would be far better represented than they are now, when accidents of personal position have so great a share in determining who shall be the Liberal or who the Conservative member for each place. Why is it, then, that such a system of representation would be intolerable to us ? Sir, it is because we look beyond parties; because we care for something besides parties; because we know that the constitution does not exist for the benefit of parties, but of citizens; and we do not choose that all the opinions, feelings, and interests of all the members of the community should be merged in the single consideration of which party shall predominate. We require a House of Commons which shall be a fitting representative of all the feelings of the people, and not merely of their party feelings. We want all the sincere opinions and public purposes which are shared by a reasonable number of electors to be fairly represented here; and not only their opinions, but that they should be able to give effect by their vote to their confidence in particular men. Then why, because it is a novelty, refuse to entertain the only mode in which it is possible to obtain this complete reflection in the House of the convictions and preferences existing in the constituent body? By the plan I propose every elector would have the option of voting for the one British subject who best represented his opinions, and to whom he was most willing to entrust the power of judging for him on subjects on which his opinions were not yet formed. Sir, I have already made the remark, that this proposal is not specially liberal, nor specially conservative, but is, in the highest degree, both liberal and conservative; and I will substantiate this by showing that it is a legitimate corollary from the distinctive doctrines of both parties. Let me first address myself to Conservatives. What is it that persons of conservative feelings specially deprecate in a plan of parliamentary reform ? It is the danger that some classes in the nation may be swamped by other classes. What is it that we are warned against as the chief among the dangers of democracy ? not untruly as democracy is vulgarly conceived and practised. It is that the single class of manual labourers would, by dint of numbers, outvote all other classes, and monopolize the whole of the legislature. But by the plan I propose no such thing could happen; no considerable minority could possibly be swamped; no interest, no feeling, no opinion which numbered in the whole country a few thousand adherents, need be without a representa- page 13 tion in due proportion to its numbers. It is true that by this plan a minority would not be equivalent to a majority; a third of the electors could not outvote two-thirds and obtain a majority of seats; but a third of the electors could always obtain a third of the seats; and these would probably be filled by men above the average in the influence which depends on personal qualities, for the voters who were outnumbered locally would range the whole country for the best candidate, and would elect him without reference to anything but their personal confidence in him; the representatives of the minorities would, therefore, include many men whose opinion would carry weight even with the opposite party. Then, again, it is always urged by Conservatives, and is one of the best parts of their creed, that the legislators of a nation should not all be men of the same stamp—a variety of feelings, interests, and prepossessions should be found in this House—and it should contain persons capable of giving information and guidance on every topic of importance that is likely to arise. This advantage, we are often assured, has really been enjoyed under our present institutions, by which almost every separate class or interest which exists in the country is somehow represented, with one great exception, which we are now occupied in removing—that of manual labour—and this advantage many Conservatives think that we are now in danger of losing. But the plan I propose ensures this variegated character of the representation in a degree never yet obtained, and guarantees its preservation under any possible extension of the franchise. Even universal suffrage, even the handing over of political predominance to the numerical majority of the whole people, would not then extinguish minorities. Every dissentient opinion would have the opportunity of making itself heard, and heard through the very best and most effective organs it was able to procure. We should not find the rich or the cultivated classes retiring from politics, as we are so often told they do in America, because they cannot present themselves to any body of electors with a chance of being returned. Such of them as were known and respected out of their immediate neighbourhood would be elected in considerable numbers, if not by a local majority, yet by a union of local minorities; and instead of being deterred from offering themselves, it would be the pride and glory of such men to serve in Parliament; for what more inspiring position can there be for any man than to be selected to fight the uphill battle of unpopular opinions in a public arena against superior numbers? All, therefore, which the best Conservatives chiefly dread in the complete ascendancy of democracy would be, if not wholly removed, at least diminished in a very great degree. These are the recommendations of the plan when looked at on its conservative side. Let us now look at it in its democratic aspect. I claim for it the page 14 support of all democrats as being the only true realization of their political principles. What is the principle of democracy? Is it not that everybody should be represented, and that everybody should be represented equally ? Am I represented by a member against whom I have voted, and am ready to vote again ? Have all the voters an equal voice, when nearly half of them have had their representative chosen for them by the larger half ? In the present mode of taking the suffrages nobody is represented but the majority. But that is not the meaning of democracy. Honest democracy does not mean the displacement of one privileged class and the instalment of another in a similar privilege because it is a more numerous or a poorer class. That would be a mere pretence of democratic equality. That is not what the working classes want. The working classes demand to be represented not because they are poor, but because they are human. No working man whom I have conversed with desires that the richer classes should be unrepresented, but only that their representation should not exceed what is due to their numbers; that all classes should have, man for man, an equal amount of representation. He does not desire that the majority should be alone represented. He desires that the majority should be represented by a majority, and the minority by a minority, and they only need to have it shown to them how this can be done. But I will go further. It is not only justice to the minorities that is here concerned. Unless minorities are counted the majority which prevails may be but a sham majority. Suppose that on taking a division in this House you compelled a large minority to step aside, and counted no votes hut those of the majority; whatever vote you then took would be decided by the majority of that majority. Does not every one see that this would often be deciding it by a minority ? The mere majority of a majority may be a minority of the whole. Now, what I have been hypothetically supposing to be done in this House, the present system actually does in the nation. It first excludes the minorities at all the elections. Not a man of them has any voice at all in determining the proceedings of Parliament. Well, now, if the members whom the majorities returned were always unanimous, we should be certain that the majority in the nation had its way. But if the majorities, and the members representing them, are ever divided, the power that decides is but the majority of a majority. Two-fifths of the electors, let us suppose, have failed to obtain any representation. The representatives of the other three-fifths are returned to Parliament, and decide an important question by two to one. Supposing the representatives to express the mind of their constituents. The question has been decided by a bare two-fifths of the nation, instead of a majority of it. Thus the present system is no more just to majorities than to minorities. It gives page 15 no guarantee that it is really the majority that preponderates. A minority of the nation, if it is a majority in the prevailing party, may outnumber and prevail over a real majority in the nation. Majorities are never sure of outnumbering minorities, unless every elector is counted—unless every man's vote is as effective as any other man's in returning a representative. No system but that which I am submitting to the House effects this, because it is the only system under which every vote tells, and every constituency is unanimous. This system, therefore, is equally required by the conservative and by the radical creeds. In practice, its chief operation would be in favour of the weakest, of those who were most liable to be outnumbered and oppressed. Under the present suffrage it would operate in favour of the working classes. Those classes form the majority in very few of the constituencies, but they are a large minority in many, and if they amount, say to a third of the whole electoral body, this system would enable them to obtain a third of the representation. Under any suffrage approaching to universal, it would operate in favour of the propertied and of the most educated classes; and though it would not enable them to outvote the others, it would leave to them and to the interests they represent a hearing and a just share in the representation. I am firmly persuaded, sir, that all parties in this House and in the country, if they could but be induced to give their minds to the consideration of this proposal, would end by being convinced, not only that it is entirely consistent with their distinctive principles, but that it affords the only means by which all that is best in those principles can be practically carried out. It would be a healing, a reconciling measure, softening all political transitions, securing that every opinion, instead of conquering or being conquered by starts and shocks, and passing suddenly from having no power at all in Parliament to having too much or the contrary, should wax or wane in political power in exact proportion to its growth or decline in the general mind of the country. So perfectly does this system realize the idea of what a representative government ought to be, that its perfection stands in its way, and is the great obstacle to its success. There is a natural prejudice against everything which professes much; men are unwilling to think that any plan which promises a great improvement in human affairs has not something quackish about it. I cannot much wonder at this prejudice when I remember that no single number of a daily paper is published whose advertising columns do not contain a score of panaceas for all human ills; when, in addition to all the pamphlets which load our tables, every member of this House, I suppose, daily receives private communications of plans by which the whole of mankind may at one stroke be made rich and prosperous, generally, I believe, page 16 by means of paper money. But if this age is fertile in new nonsense, and in new forms of old nonsense, it is an age in which many great improvements in human affairs have really been made. It is also an age in which, whether we will or not, we are entering on new paths; we are surrounded by circumstances wholly without example in history; and the wonder would be if exigencies so new could be dealt with in a completely satisfactory manner by the old means. We should therefore ill discharge our duty if we obstinately refused to look into new proposals. This, sir, is not the mere crotchet of an individual. It has been very few years before the world, but already, by the mere force of reason, it has made important converts among the foremost public writers and public men in Germany, in France, in Switzerland, in Italy, in our Australian colonies, and in the United States. In one illustrious though small commonwealth, that of Geneva, a powerful association has been organized and is at work, under the presidency of one of the most eminent men in the Swiss federation, agitating for the reform of the constitution on this basis. And what in our own country ? Why, sir, almost every thinking person I know who has studied this plan, or to whom it has been sufficiently explained, is for giving it at least a trial. Various modes have been suggested of trying it on a limited scale. With regard to the practical machinery proposed, neither I nor the distinguished author of the plan are wedded to its details, if any better can be devised. If the principle of the plan were admitted, a committee or a royal commission could be appointed to consider and report on the best means of providing for the direct representation of every qualified voter, and we should have a chance of knowing if the end we have in view could be attained by any better means than those which we suggest. But without some plan of the kind it is impossible to have a representative system really adequate to the exigencies of modern society. In all states of civilization, and in all representative systems, personal representation would be a great improvement; but, at present, political power is passing, or is supposed to be in danger of passing, to the side of the most numerous and poorest class. Against this class predominance, as against all other class predominance, the personal representation of every voter, and therefore the full representation of every minority, is the most valuable of all protections. Those who are anxious for safeguards against the evils they expect from democracy should not neglect the safeguard which is to be found in the principles of democracy itself. It is not only the best safeguard, but the surest and most lasting, because it combats the evils and dangers of false democracy by means of the true, and because every democrat who understands his own principles must see and feel its strict and impartial justice.