TOPICS OF THE DAY
THE PROPOSED REFORM BILLS.
IF the Government are disposed, as is alleged, to defer to the feeling of the Constituencies who returned them to power, by introducing at the opening of next Session a Fran- chise Bill establishing a uniform residential franchise in towns and counties, and think of accompanying it by .a separate Bill, in which their plan for the Redistribution of Seats would be laid before Parliament, it can hardly be too soon to discuss the principles on which such measures, if they are to win the full confidence of the Liberal Party, should be founded. In the present article, we desire only to sketch the ideal to be carried out in these measures, without, of course, in the least suggesting that no Bills could deserve the full confidence of the country in which the ideal was not attained.
First, then, as regards the Franchise Bill, we would earnestly advise the constituencies to insist, as something like a condi- tion of their hearty assent to such a Bill that the faggot quali- fications for the county should be absolutely abolished. If every householder in the county is to have his vote in order that the Members elected may at least represent the local opinion of that county, it should not be possible to counteract the drift of local opinion by purchasing for strangers at a distance, without any sort of personal interest in local affairs, the right to rig the electoral market by speculative investments. Even in the interests of Conservatism, even in the interests of the terri- torial party, this is utterly bad. We cordially admit that local feeling, whether the feeling of squires, or of the parochial clergy, or of the farmers, or of any other genuine part of the resident population, is entitled to be fully represented in proportion to its real influence. But so much the more we assert that it ought to be punishable as one of the worst of corrupt practices, for persons without any sort of natural connection with the county to buy a right to interfere in the election, solely for the purpose of advancing party interests, be they the interests of Tories, Whigs, or Radicals. The County Franchise Bill will not be up to the mark, unless the faggot voting is entirely and finally ended. Of course, when we say this, we do not presume to say with anything like the same confidence, that the only county qualification should be a residential one, and that the right of a proprietor of a freehold, as a proprietor, to vote in a county election should be abolished. That, indeed, is what we should like to see made the ideal of the Bill. It seems to us that for non-resident proprietors to vote in several counties, merely as landowners, and in several other counties as residents, is much more likely to increase the jealousy felt of them amongst the numerous classes who have no property outside the walls of their own houses, than to increase substantially the influence of property at the poll. Democracy is not a system which you can safely cheat or trick by gaining petty advantages over it of this kind. It is far wiser to accept the system frankly, and to try to persuade the people at large to adopt your views, than to attempt to steal a march upon them by handicapping the poorer voters, that is,by weighting them with traditional disadvantages derived from an extinct aristocratic regime. We hold that nothing will tell worse against the influence of rank and wealth than to attempt to keep for rank and wealth rags and tatters of on obsolete political influence, after the main source of that influence has been repudiated and resigned. Still, we are quite aware that in a country as conservative of old habits as England, and where the services rendered to the Liberal Party by the old forty-shilling freehold are so vividly remembered, there will be a very great reluctance to surrender entirely the old popular suffrage of the counties, only on the ground that a new and much more popular county suffrage has superseded it. We are so well aware of the strong historical prejudices to which the friends of the old forty-shilling freehold will appeal, that we are by no means disposed to say that no Bill which does not strictly limit the franchise in counties, as in boroughs, to a residential franchise, ought to receive the favour of the people. But this we do say, that no Bill which does not absolutely abolish altogether—as Sir Henry James has so well maintained,—the faggot-voting, should receive the favour of the people ; and next, that the bolder the new measure shall be in approaching the test of residence -as the sole qualification for voting in either counties or boroughs, the more will it deserve the confidence of hearty Liberals. If property is to be substantially represented as property the whole principle of the Act of 1867 and the whole principle of the County Suffrage Bill is wrong. And if property is not to be substantially represented as property, then the attempt to represent it unsubstaitially, by availing- ourselves of the attachment of the people to the traditions of an obsolete regime, will be a failure, and will cause much more distrust of the proprietary classes than it will secure to them of valuable influence.
In the next place, the Redistribution of Seats must- make a fair approximation towards giving equal weight in the Legislature to equally weighty bodies of men,. —counting population as the chief constituent of poli- tical weight, but not, of course, excluding wealth and energy,. as very important elements of political weight. We do not mean that no population numbering less than 50,000 souls should elect a Member, but that where a population of some. 25,000 or 30,000 souls is to have a single Member, there should be a good reason for giving to that population more than its. proportional weight in the community, some reason derived from the wealth it has accumulated or the characteristic energy that it has displayed. For the most part, we should hope that no county division with a population! under 30,000 would be allowed, and that so far as the smaller boroughs are to be retained, the grouping system—which has answered very well hitherto—should be so far adopted as to bring up the constituency of every Member to something like 30,000 at the lowest. It is clearly of no use to bring in a new Redistribu- tion Bill like the homoeopathic measure of 1867. As the counties are to be enfranchised, it will be impossible to leave very minute• constituencies with the full representative influence of a county division, unless, indeed, it is desired that a new Reform agitation should spring up as soon as the Reform Bills are carried. The opportunity of settling this great question in a more or less durable fashion must not be lost. We should be very sorry to see any disposition to adopt a hard-and-fast line which should+ disfranchise or swamp really characteristic constituencies, on the sole ground that they do not include a population reaching a given inflexible figure. But some attempt there must be to distri- bute legislative representation in real proportion to political weight, and we hold that in estimating political weight, popula- tion must be the chief element, though various other considera- tions should be taken into account. For instance, it will be quite fair to make some allowance for the great advantage of the Metropolis, as the seat of the Legislature, over distant localities, and, therefore, to give Scotland and Ireland a considerably larger allotment of Members than the same population as Scotland and Ireland contain, if living in the counties which contain London, would be entitled to. But if the Redistribution Bill is to be satisfactory, it certainly must take a very great step in the direction of increasing the minimum constituency returning even a single Member, to a population of between 30,000 and 50,000 souls. In London, it might be reasonable enough to regard a population of 50,000 as not under-represented, even though it had no more legislative representation than a population of 30,000—representing an equal stake in the country—in Ross-shire or Clare.
Lastly, we cordially hold, with Mr. Fawcett, that great pains should be taken to prevent the virtual disfranchisement of minorities by the adoption of any system which would drown them everywhere in the same predominant majority. But we cannot see our way, either to a very large extension of the present " three-cornered " system—which, without very large extension, is really unjust to the predominant majority,—or to the still more complicated form of Mr. Hare's system, which Mr. Parker Smith proposes in his letter of to-day. To win the confidence of a democracy, the very first requisite of a system is simplicity. We must not ask the people to accept a plan which they do not understand, and which will be open to a thousand plausible misrepresentations sure to under- mine the confidence of the people. It might be possible to apply successfully such a system as Mr. Parker Smith proposes to the Universities of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and we should not be indisposed to see it tried in their case. But to propose a system which would puzzle the heads of all ordinary constituencies, would be absurd. Under Mr. Parker Smith's plan, constituencies might have to be told that their most popular re- presentative had 10,000 votes, but that as he only wanted 5,000 to secure his election, 5,000 of the votes given to him were distri- buted amongst those who were the " second favourites " of his supporters. This would raise suspicions of manipulation of the voting-papers certain to excite popular disgust. For instance, undersuch a system it would make the greatest possible difference whether you determined which votes to select as those seating the most popular of the candidates, by going through the Register from A to Z, or whether you determined them by going through the Register from Z to A. If you went through it in one direc-
tion, a very different set of second or third preferences would emerge, from those which would emerge if you went through it the other way ; and so we should have candidates complaining that they had lost their election by the mere accident of the order in which the Register was dealt with by the polling clerks. Nothing involving complicated considerations can possibly stand the test of democratic criticism. Your method must be perfectly plain and simple, Nor do we in the least agree with Mr. Fawcett that there need be any danger at all in such a subdivision of con- stituencies as would really give us as many different types of constituency as possible. We hold that nothing would be easier than for Parliament to declare that the intention of the Act was to create as many different types of constituency not falling short of a given population and a given rateable value of property, as might be practicable. Then Parliament might create a Boundary Commission so entirely above suspicion that no one could doubt the honesty with which it would resist the temp- tation to " jerrymander," as the politicians of the United States term the cobbling of constituencies in the interests of party. What could be easier than to appoint a Boundary Commission, constituted of three men of the highest standing on each side, with Sir Erskine May, or some man of equal weight, as Presi- dent. And who would accuse such a Commission of jerry- mandering ? So far as we see, the only plan for securing the re- presentation of minorities consistent with the simplicity needful for a democracy, is to subdivide constituencies so that they shall really represent as much as possible different types of life and political bias, and then to give such constituencies one Member each. There is no need, of course, to call these subdivisions, wards. A Member for Edgbaston would mean as much in relation to Birmingham, as a Member for Kensington would mean in relation to London, and it would be very feasible so to constitute the various constituencies as to get what is wanted,—constituencies with a bias and genius of their own. At any rate, we see no other practicable way of representing minorities, without undermining the confidence of the people at large in the electoral system pursued.