By A. P. HERBERT following correspondence has passed: November 9, 1963 Dear Prime Minister, Very many congratulations! What a splendid show! May I venture a suggestion?
1. None of the numerous knowing commen- tators has ,remarked on one important difference between Luton and Kinross. Mr. Howie (Luton) is what I call a minority Member (there were 21,108 votes for him, but 22,856 against). But we now accept the absurd 'First Past The Post' system so blindly that hardly anyone notices the difference.
2. You say: 'Vote Liberal and you let the Socialist in.' Yes, but you can stop that very simply by bringing in the Alternative Vote. Why not?
3. I spent yesterday delving into Dod's Par- liamentary Companion, 1963, and, with some inaccuracy, perhaps, have extracted the follow- ing figures: Of 630 Members, 102 (about one in six) are 'minority' Members: Conservatives sixty-one, Labour forty, Liberal one.
Of, I think, thirty-six by-elections twenty-three have produced minority Members.
4. On these figures, no doubt, your mathe- matical advisers may tell you that the present system works out best, and will, for your side. Will they bet on that? I shouldn't myself. But that, I submit, is not the only consideration. If at the general election the threatened ubiquity of Liberals comes off, the 'trend' of the by- elections is likely to be continued, and that might mean that about 400-450 out of 630 Members were 'minority' Members. This would be so untidy and 'undemocratic' that faith in Parliament would take some more severe knocks.
5. In June last year, in The Times, I sug- gested that it was time for a Speaker's Con- ference on electoral reform. I venture to suggest that it is not too late now. If Labour protest you can point out truthfully that on the present figures, given above, they seem to be at a dis- advantage, and should benefit by a change. It would fit in with your declared intentions—you Wish to begin by 'modernising' elections: and it would be a good reason for not having a general election at once. You refuse to expose the people to a general election until the machine is made more sensible and efficient.
With apologies—the best of luck!
A. P. HERBERT
December 3, 1963 Dear Prime Minister, I. 1 was glad to hear from your secretary that you had read my letter of November 9. I could not then expect more, but I hope that now you may have time to let me—and others more im- portant—know what you think.
2. I should first correct some figures.
(a) The present number of 'minority' or 'non'- Members I now make one hundred, not 102.
(b) The Liberals turned up at thirty-five out of thirty-nine by-elections recorded in Dod, and twenty-three of the thirty-five pro- duced non-Members, an alarming rate. But the total by-elections, they tell me (in- cluding the two Benn extras at Bristol), was
fifty-two: and twenty-six of these, just half, yielded minority Members.
3. It is not too fanciful, then, to imagine a Parliament with between 300 and 400 'minority' Members.
4. Politicians, and party-organisers, are human, and naturally think of these matters in terms of party advantage. But in the end it is recognised that that is not all—hence the custom of the Speaker's Conference. You are not only the leader of a party but the head of the State: and I appeal to you to think about Fair Voting in that superior capacity.
5. There is considerable evidence that in their heart of hearts the best men in all parties are agreed upon the need for change. . . .
6. I venture to suggest again that a Speaker's Conference should be arranged at once: (a) There would be no time to institute full STV before the general election, and con- sideration of that could be postponed.
(b) There would be plenty of time to bring in the Alternative Vote. All that is needed is a one-clause Bill with Schedule giving the Rules (I have one before me). The only administrative work necessary would be (a) the instruction of returning officers (which could be done in ten minutes) and (b) the printing of instructions on the voting papers (which, for a generation skilled in betting and the pools, need not
be elaborate). , 7. The Alternative Vote is a second-best, but would be a useful instalment of equity and common sense: (a) It is roughly the way in which the Leader of the Opposition was chosen and, some say, your respected self.
(b) It is used by the National Unions of the Mineworkers and the Railwaymen to select their leaders.
(c) It is at this moment helping to put that great man, Sir Robert Menzies, back.
(d) The principle is familiar to almost every- one in this land of gamblers. The principle is the correction of error, the 'second shot' —e.g., the 'perm,' the 'each way' or 'saving' bet, and especially the system known 'as 'Stop at a Winner.' This is the Alternative Vote exactly.
8. I understand the difficulties of your dual role. Sir Winston Churchill had the same trouble. But, from the purely party point of view, are your advisers so sure that the present system is, and always will be, in their favour?
(a) They say—you said it yourself—'Vote Liberal and you let the Socialist in.' But whose fault is that? Under the present system anyone can let anybody in. Who let Labour in at South Dorset, Paisley and Rochdale? A Conservative.
(b) Under the Alternative Vote nobody can let anybody in. No one can predict where the Liberal 'second choices' would go— this must vary from place to place. But at Luton if the whole Liberal vote had been transferred to your candidate you would have held the seat, I reckon, by 762. If only a quarter had gone to Labour, Labour would have won—as Labour did: but there would have been no 'letting in.'
(c) In many places where the Liberals (you say) now let Labour in,' they might—
who knows?—put Labour out. At South Dorset, certainly, if the Debenham (anti- Common Market) voters had refused to give their second choice to Maude, the Liberal vote would almost certainly have held the seat Rr your party.
But the truth is, I suggest, that no party can be sure how its own fortunes would be affected. It is therefore foolish, as well as improper, to think on purely party lines.
9. I return, therefore, to what I conceive to be the line of thought for any statesman.
(a) With more than two candidates for a single seat (whether the third is a Liberal, a popular 'Nationalist,' or an , anti- Common Marketer) the present system is obviously and necessarily unscientific, in- efficient and unjust.
(b) Bingo, Roulette, the Pools are strictly regulated by Parliament, for the purpose of securing 'fairness.' Any three-cornered election is a wild unregulated gamble. No- body cheats: but the whole thing is crooked.
(c) the results are: i. Unfair between the parties, and make nonsense of the expression 'parliamentary representation.'
ii. Frustrating to the elector (whose One Vote is wasted).
iii. Inimical to respect for Parliament.
iv. Discreditable to the country.
v. A prime case for 'modernisation.' Yours sincerely, A. P. HERBERT
December 16, 1963 My dear Herbert, Thank you for your letter of December 3 about Electoral Reform.
Your suggestions would mean a fundamental change in our method of voting. I am sure you will agree that you could not embark upon this without the full implications being thoroughly examined.
The 1944 Speaker's Conference on Electoral Reform rejected overwhelmingly proportional representation and the alternative vote. I will give your ideas further. thought, but you will agree that they do present difficulties.
December 17, 1963 Dear Prime Minister,
Thank you for your, letter of- December 16, and for giving some thought to mine. Yes, I knew about the Speaker's Conference of 1944, but that was nineteen years ago. Much has. changed since then, and perhaps opinions too.
If you really have time to think of this again, I hope I may inflict upon you the result of some further researches, giving more Concern. to your own party advantage. They were prompted by the absurd and regrettable figures of the Dum- fries by-election. Here, in theory, under the Alternative Vote both the Liberal (4,491) and the Scottish Nationalist (4,001) might have given their 'second choices' to the Conservativ,e, which would have meant a smashing majority of 9,463. That, no doubt, would be too much to hope, but we don't know. All these calculations by learned commentators about the 'swing' away from Con- servatives entirely ignore the fact that much of the 'swing' may mean votes, which, on a second count, would return to the Conservative.
1. On a recount I now make the number of seats held on a minority of the votes polled one hundred includingpumfries.
Votes % Seats
1,655,736 39 37
805,090 19 1
Forgetting, for the moment, the question of justice, I must agree that your party, at present, seems to profit by the system. You have sixty-two of the one hundred seats, though only 42 per cent of the votes. On all this talk about 'LIBERAL letting in LABOUR,' by the way, you may be in- terested in the following figures (they assume that No. 3 in a 'minority' result 'lets in' No. 1): LIBERAL let in LABOUR ..
LIBERAL let in CONSERVATIVE
LABOUR let in CONSERVATIVE
CONSERVATIVE let in LABOUR
LABOUR let in LIBERAL
One comment is: if you are going cm with the present system is it wise to squash and snub the Liberals? They are more of a nuisance to LABOUR than they are to CONSERVATIVE.
The other comment is: are your advisers sure that your present advantages will endure? Labour, I read yesterday, are selecting marginal seats for special attention 'with an eye to . . . the number of candidates likely to contest them as well as the size of the Conservative majority.' In short, more places like Dumfries. Here the outsiders, LIBERAL and SCOTTISH NATIONALIST, got 8,492 votes, or 20 per cent of the whole. These votes went for absolutely nothing. I de- cline to believe that, on a second shot, most of them would not have gone to you.
Then, the Liberal is not always a bad third. In about fifty 'minority' seats he got so many votes that you would be very glad to have the chance of getting them on a second count.
(There are about fifty other seats which you now hold 'clear,' but by small majorities—you have about forty-four, I see, under 4,000, in- cluding twelve under 1,000. The intervention of a Liberal here is likely to be fatal, unless you can get some of his votes back on the second count.) 3. Under the Alternative Vote. The only firm assumption I have dared to make is that both CONSERVATIVE and LABOUR, if bottom of the poll on the first count, would give their second choice to LIBERAL. PAISLEY (by-election, April 20, 1961) is a simple example:
19,200 = 19,200
LIBERAL majority 3,939.
On that assumption, 1 reckon, LIBERAL would gain twenty seats (thirteen from CONSERVATIVE and seven from LABOUR) and have twenty-one of the one hundred. This would leave seventy- nine seats for CONSERVATIVE and LABOUR, corre- sponding closely to their share of the votes.
But how would the seventy-nine seats be divided? How, that is, would LIBERALS distribute their second choices? No doubt they would vary With persons, places and the politics of the day (and fewer insults from CONSERVATIVES might help). But after all, they are anti-Socialists, too. There is no gratitude, politically, I know, but they might, at least,, be less 'bloody-minded' to- wards those who took the lead in releasing them from electoral frustration.
1 assume, then, tentatively, that in general LIBERAL gives two-thirds to CONSERVATIVE and 2. The one hundred 'minority' seats (if my one-third to LABOUR. You would then, I reckon,
CONSERVATIVE 60 LABOUR 19 LIBERAL 21 This looks fairly healthy for CONSERVATIVE. It may, of course, be 'optimistic.'
If the Liberals distributed their second choices fifty-fifty, the seventy-nine seats would be divided as before (but now with clear majorities) and the figures might be:
CONSERVATIVE 49 LABOUR 30 LIBERAL 21 This does not look so good, but at least, in these one hundred seats, the Opposition is divided.
4. Some of your advisers, I know, would be shocked by the figure 'LIBERAL 21.' But how do you propose to deal with the Liberals? . . .
5. Dumfries was a sad epitome. At the general
election there was a straight fight, and a clear decision between CONSERVATIVE and LABOUR. Dumfries had spoken. Now on to the field come LIBERAL and SCOTTISH NATIONALIST. They are well entitled, they can't be stopped. They are guerrillas, if you like, fighting for themselves. But finding they can do no good for themselves, they should at least be given the chance to join one of the two regular armies. They are not. The result is an inconclusive mess. Nobody can say, 'Dumfries has spoken.' Dumfries has said nothing at all. Under the Alternative Vote it might have spoken strongly for you.
6. Thus, I submit, you might serve justice, efficiency, and—who knows?—party advantage together.
A. P. HERBERT